Stephanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond’s My Little Sister slides inmoments of misdirection. One scene depicts three family members. Lisa (Nina Hoss), her older twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger), and their mother Kathy (Martha Keller) are having a fight. And during the next, it shows three paragliders. Witnessing those paragliders are Lisa and Sven, wondering if they know the person performing the stunt. These slights of hand are occassional yet wonderful. But do they make this drama more interesting than other entries into the subgenre? Either way, the siblings cross borders, Lisa caring for Sven and the other members of her family.
Lisa cares for Sven because he’s trying to survive what seems like bone cancer. Some people with the diagnosis want to keep living their life as if they’re healthy. Sven, an actor, wants to return to the stage in a revival of Hamlet. But the theatre’s director, David (Thomas Ostermeier) tells him over the phone of his own business choices. He must cancel the production of a play with a physically weak star. Sven is experiencing his own heartbreak in Switzerland, away from his work in Germany. Meanwhile, Lisa’s choices are harder because her family in Switerland. That family includes her husband Martin (Jens Albinus) with his own cushy job running a top art school.
Lisa endures, unfortunately, the same hurdles that characters in the subgenre go through. Characters lie to each other. When finally learning the truth, they take sides and heighten otherwise rational perspectives into irrational ones. One of the big reveals here is that Lisa doesn’t know about the production cancellation. And when she does, she tries to argue David into bringing back Hamlet so that Sven has something to fight cancer for. This is one of the key plot points that feel American and populist. And there are moments here that will make these characters seem too bourgeois for sympathy.
But that sympathy comes about when viewers drop their class prejudices. At its core, this is still about a sister trying to save someone’s life. There are other things that make that struggle more palatable than melodramatic. Maybe it’s other prejudices like the valorization of older Europeans. Or maybe it’s in the way Hoss portrays Lisa. Or maybe it’s that thing that happens during crises and how people handle them. Lisa sometimes yells but she never flails. Both Hoss and the drama slow moments down. They make every word deliberate and every action important enough to capture viewers’ attention.
This film is Switzerland’s entry for the ‘Best International Feature Film’ category of this year’s botched Oscars. That’s a rant for another time. The privileged characters here might not be for everyone. But the film they’re in makes the crop of this year’s international films slightly better. All Canadians can watch it on https://digital.tiff.net/.