A swish Swiss ski resort proves a pickpocket’s paradise - for a while, at least - in Sister (L'Enfant d'en haut), the exceptional new film by Ursula Meier. It’s at this location that our 12-year-old protagonist, Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), operates, stealing not only money and food from the well-to-do clientele but also skis, helmets and other equipment, goods which he then flogs. Simon lives with Lou (Léa Seydoux), his irresponsible "older sister" who leaves him alone for long periods. At the resort, though, Simon hooks up with two surrogate-parent figures: a Scottish chef, Mike (Martin Compston), who abets him in his criminal activity and a woman (Gillian Anderson, somewhat underused), in whose presence Simon constructs a new identity for himself.
There’s more than a suggestion of the Dardennes’s work to Sister, with its focus on a disenfranchised and dogged young protagonist scraping by in difficult circumstances. And yet the movie succeeds in carving out its own distinctive niche. Boasting a sparsely employed but beautifully twitchy and imposing guitar score from John Parish (an element that the Dardennes would surely be unlikely to sanction) Meier’s movie is a taut and haunting work that manages not to hammer home its social points. This director clearly has a fascination for place and its impact on human behaviour. Her debut film, Home, found its protagonists using an abandoned motorway as an extension of their dwelling, and location is equally important to Sister, which moves between the spacious mountain resort and Simon and Lou’s tenement flat, with its grim surroundings. Connected via a cable car (site of the film’s stunning concluding moments), the two locations are rendered with unflashy eloquence in Agnes Godard’s characteristically superb cinematography.
A few scattered moments - such as Simon’s getting ejected from the resort with the garbage, at one point - are a little much and I didn’t entirely buy the character’s partnership with Mike, either. But Meier’s film is, overall, an outstanding piece of work boasting a superb turn by Mottet Klein, who makes Simon by turns a steely, cocksure operator and a goofy kid, both needy and self-sufficient. It’s a performance to rank alongside Thomas Doret's brilliant work in the Dardennes’s The Kid With A Bike, and it says something about Meier’s achievement in Sister that the movie itself doesn’t suffer from that comparison.