What if Shakespeare had decided that foreign editions of Hamlet were going to be called Ophelia? An audience sitting down to a play called Ophelia might wonder why they're spending so much time with the crazy-talking boyfriend.
A similar switch is at work with Sister, the new French-Swiss film by Ursula Meier. The original title is L'enfant d'en haut. Literally, it means something like "the kid at the top," and despite the important double meaning of the French title, Sister probably works better in English.
Still, this marketing decision imposes a radical shift in audience point of view. In the case of Sister, the title refers to Louise, a sad wreck of a young woman, unable to hold a job and unwilling to take responsibility for Simon, the young boy in her charge. But we only see her through the eyes of young Simon, a marvelously resourceful kid who spends his days at the top of an Alpine resort, stealing skis and other accessories and reselling them in the town below.
Simon's meager illicit earnings buy the two of them food and clothing—and in flush times, even an oven. They'd live even better if Louise would a) hold a job and b) not squander money on drink and other indulgences. As played by French actress Léa Seydoux, Louise has the face of an angel but the temperament and decision-making ability of a horribly selfish, immature child.
Simon, meanwhile, is a classic European movie archetype—the resourceful, indefatigable juvenile delinquent is a feature of films as recent as last year's The Kid With a Bike, The 400 Blows and on back to The Bicycle Thief—and Kacey Mottet Klein plays him with all of the heartbreaking intelligence of his forebears. We meet Simon in an extended opening sequence: He's geared up like a skier, with hat and goggles, and at first we think he's a young racer. But as he rifles through a changing room, we realize what he's up to. The sequence, mostly wordless and featuring handheld camera, goes on a bit long as it tries to replicate the feel of a film by the Dardennes brothers (who made The Kid With a Bike, along with Rosetta, La Promesse and other films about young desperadoes).
In Sister, Simon is the responsible parent, struggling to keep house and cook meals while giving money to Louise when she demands it. But despite Simon's resourcefulness, he's desperate for maternal affection that Louise can't, or won't, provide.
It's a powerful emotional setup, but the filmmakers, who include cinematographer Agnès Godard, seem too enraptured by the beauty of the mountains, and the corresponding squalor in the town below, to address some fundamental questions about these characters. How did Louise and Simon end up this way? Is everyone in their family dead? Why don't they seek help from Swiss social services? Why doesn't anyone ever ask Simon why he isn't in school? And given that luxury resorts everywhere are plagued by property crimes—and, as a result, have extensive surveillance systems—how come security guards never detain this kid who arrives every morning without skis and departs every afternoon with a bulging backpack and two pairs of skis under his arms?
We don't really need all these answers, but because the point of view always stays with Simon, we don't find out much about why Louise won't or can't fulfill her basic responsibilities as a guardian. But full credit is due Seydoux for her commitment to a young woman who is nearly unstinting in her awfulness. Some actors can't handle playing unlikeable, unsympathetic characters, but Seydoux goes all in—never more than when Louise greedily extracts every cent of Simon's hard-ill-gotten cash in exchange for a loving snuggle in bed that the boy so desperately needs.
European filmmakers have an impressive commitment to telling stories about dysfunction within their welfare states, and they tell them well. Sister is no exception—there are tense scenes and emotional ones, and there's also a nice plot twist that's revealed at exactly the right time. For better or worse, American filmmakers tend to dive into the deep-fried squalor (Precious, Winter's Bone) or camp it up (Killer Joe, Black Snake Moan) or give it poetry and magic (Beasts of the Southern Wild). These American films of recent years have their merits, but we await the filmmaker who can tell a tale about, say, a young mother working through community college, burdened by school loans and credit card debt, and ignored by a government that insists on cutting Medicaid, while still turning out a story as compelling, enjoyable and aesthetically accomplished as Sister.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Women on the run."