Gillian Anderson, a single mother of two vacationing in the opulent Swiss… (Courtesy of Adopt Films )
For 12-year-old Simon, the resilient central character in the Swiss drama "Sister," the ski season is a time of particular purpose. His daily gondola-lift rides to a tony mountaintop resort are not about sport but a matter of enterprise, a way of surviving.
In the rarefied air of leisure and disposable income, Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) is a skinny stealth figure, and back in the lower altitudes he's an assured salesman, hawking the skis and gear he's stolen to neighborhood kids. Mike, a British seasonal worker (Martin Compston) from the resort restaurant who catches him red-handed, is dumbfounded to learn that Simon's escapades aren't the thrill rides of a bored kid — it would be easier to dismiss him as a smart aleck having fun. But Simon steals out of need.
The particulars of that need emerge in bits and pieces, emotional land mines that detonate with understated power in writer-director Ursula Meier's incisive and economically told film. ("Sister" is Switzerland's submission to the Academy Awards' foreign-language category.)
More or less unprotected, Simon has taken on the role of protector. Louise (Léa Seydoux), the older sister he lives with in a strikingly isolated apartment tower, is as scattered as he is methodical, caroming from one thankless job to the next. She leaves him alone on Christmas in order to be with the latest in an apparently long string of uncaring men.
She accepts Simon's pilfered gifts with abashed gratitude. A backpack full of sandwiches serves as their supper. A ski jacket is stylish but makes her nervous. "Nobody cares up there," he assures her. "They just buy another."
Simon has an eagle eye not just for untended possessions but for the behavior of people with money. When he's not stealing from them, he's trying to play the part of big shot. Drawn to the cool maternal ministrations of an Englishwoman (Gillian Anderson) who's on holiday with her young children, he insists on picking up the lunch check. Later, he'll offer Louise money for a cuddle.
Mottet Klein, whose first acting stint was in Meier's debut feature, the modernist parable "Home," brings ferocious comic poignancy to the tough-vulnerable Simon, whether he's assuming the idle pose of a vacationing European or using cigarette filters as earplugs when Louise brings her boyfriend home for the night.
The chemistry between the two leads is a razor's-edge dance: feral, childish, tender and always complex. Seydoux, seen earlier this year in "Farewell My Queen," is a screen presence of remarkable earthiness who makes Louise's wounds fully felt without defining them.
Meier and cinematographer Agnès Godard make potent use of the setting's alternating highs and lows, delivering a jolt of heartbreaking hope in the film's final image.