A ski-lift gondola, rumbling up the side of a Swiss mountain, is the means by which Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), the 12-year-old boy at the center of Ursula Meier's dark fairy tale of a film, "Sister," gets to work.
His job: picking pockets, stealing boots and backpacks, taking money and even sandwiches from vacationers, bringing his bounty back to the apartment in a public-housing high-rise that he shares with his adult sister (Léa Seydoux). That's how they get by, he and Louise: He'll hawk his wares, pocket the cash, share the food. As for Louise, who looks to be just a few years older, she'll go off on dates with guys who pull up in cars, returning late in the night, or the next day.
Beautifully observed, and with a riveting and unstudied performance from Klein, "Sister" tracks its little thief as he prowls for loot - and crosses paths with strangers who hold out the possibility of friendship, of family. There's a British cook (Martin Compston) working in one of the ski resort's restaurants, who reluctantly aids and abets Simon, and there is a well-to-do mother (a memorable turn from Gillian Anderson), there with her two children, enjoying the snow and sun. Simon, changing his name and his back story, insinuates himself into her world.
Simon and Louise are like lost children from some old fable. They share a sense of isolation, an unspoken acknowledgment that life is moving apart from them. And they share something else unspoken as well.
"Sister," the official Swiss entry in the Oscar competition for foreign language film (it's in French), is haunting and sad.
And absolutely worth seeing.
"Sister" (L'enfant d'en haut)
• Not rated.
• Director: Ursula Meier.
• Cast: Magne-Håvard Brekke, Jean-François Stévenin, Dilon Ademi, Léa Seydoux, Gillian Anderson, Gabin Lefebvre, Yann Trégouët, Martin Compston, Kacey Mottet Klein.
• Running time: 97 minutes.