There are at least three notable, semi-recent films wherein kids who haven’t even hit puberty enter the work force as hard-scrabble, selfish monsters, thus putting decent humanity to shame. Ursula Meier’s Sister is the latest, but the trend began even before the Economic Catastrofuck, with Ramin Bahrani’s 2007 Iron Triangle-set Chop Shop. The other is Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid With the Bike, whose gamine takes up with local dealers. If Sister can’t be written off as a direct Kid ripoff—only a year separates the two films’ Cannes debuts—it at least feels impossible without the Dardennes in general. That’s a mild shame. Meier’s previous film, one of the roughly 20,000 films entitled Home, was a surreal ditty that distinguished itself with a bold voice. Sister is Dardenne-lite, which is fine: Being reminiscent of two of cinema’s most reliable makers isn’t the worst quality to have.
Meier’s own young pup is Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), an adolescent stationed in a Swiss Alps resort, stealing skiing supplies from the rich and selling it back to them. His is not a brilliant operation: He lives hand-to-mouth, helping to buttress the meager salary of Louise (Léa Seydoux, expanding her limited arsenal of emotions once again), his guardian and sister—or so we’re told (hint, hint). Like Home, Sister turns on a twist, but where the previous one shocked Home into a different tone entirely, the one here, though more galling, fails to send the film too off course. Sister traces the klepto, increasingly self-destructive Simon as he alienates his three parental surrogates, the others being a British cook at the resort (Martin Compston) and a wealthy tourist (Gillian Anderson).
Though what transpires is clearly Dardennes-indebted, it’s worth noting that Meier deviates in two key ways. Unlike them, Meier isn’t interested in making a “moral tale.” Sister is more a portrait than well-chiseled drama, and one lacking the rough, naturalistic handheld that immediately identifies the Dardennes’ work as their own. Cinematographer Agnès Godard, best known as Claire Denis’ co-conspirator, makes imagery primary. Despite working in digital for the first time, she always ensures there’s something interesting going on visually, even if it’s little more than the unusual angle at which a ski lift crosses the frame.