Part of the international showcase at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, Ursula Meier’s Sister is another meditation on the viewpoint of children in an alienating adult world. Some of the other festival films I’ve previously discussed present that notion of childhood subjectivity within the framework of the child’s parents or elders; we’re with the child and perceive how they see those adults. From the child’s reaction we can see the person they are and person they’ll become. This Swiss film initially follows a different tack, finding a child outside of that framework and perceiving the nuances and interiority of a childhood spent in isolation.
We first encounter 12-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) on a typical day at work, artfully dodging his way through crowds at a high-priced ski resort, pilfering skis and gear and even food. The observational camera follows his process, the routine and the detail. He’s an expert, even knowing how to restore and repair the equipment to up their resale value. He carries the air of a professional, understanding that no one’s paying enough attention to stop him. When one of his neighborhood clients asks how he’s able to just walk away with the stuff, Simon shrugs. “They don’t miss them. They just go and buy new ones,” he explains. In his eyes, these tourists see their belongings as mere things; to Simon, they’re his means of survival.
Meier builds up the complexity of Simon and his narrative slowly, through a deliberate process of accretion. When his older sister, Louise (Léa Seydoux), wanders back home and into the story, greeting us in an early scene by pissing behind a roadside bush, there’s an understanding that her arrival isn’t the inciting incident for some new chapter in Simon’s life. As we see them fall into their usual rhythms, it’s clear that Louise has always been flip and flighty, coming and going, dependent on Simon as a pillar of stability, whether he wants to be or not. Their relationship, dysfunctional as it is, has an ease and familiarity to it. It’s dominated by Louise’s pattern of absence and reappearance that Simon has long become inured to.
Klein captures that inurement in a delicate performance that could have easily become an incomplete sketch of a youth wise beyond his years. But what we see instead is something far more complex; he’s an isolated soul wrestling with the empty spaces in his identity and his relationship with Louise. When he has a task in front of him, he’s clear in what he has to do. But outside the realm of stealing and selling, what he really wants is a more difficult question. When Louise asks him if he plans to keep stealing his entire life, he has no answer.
This family drama, slow and reserved and poetic, all takes place in the shadow of a mountain. As the original French title makes more explicit, Meier captures the distinctions between high and low, between the murky reality of life on the ground and the dreamlike spaces of white powder up top, where they’re “in the middle of fucking nowhere,” as Mike (Martin Compston), a cook at the resort and one of Simon’s confederates, describes it. Meier elucidates this in a striking shot, close on Simon heading down the mountain on a tram. He’s resting his eyes, and the only movement in the frame comes from the crags and cliffs of the mountain, rushing up in the window behind him. The mountain is literally in his headspace.
And yet the film asks us, what else is in that head? What drives Simon forward? Signs point to something as simple as a search for a mother he’s never had, as his tentative and awkward interactions with an English tourist (played by Gillian Anderson) seem to indicate. But that would be a rather clean and straightforward answer, and Meier is clearly after something more difficult, something far more jumbled; in this film, it’s the child, not the adult, who has a reservoir of secrets. Throughout the film, Simon is asked about his parents, and he gives many conflicting answers. When Mike asks, Simon tells him they died in car crash. Mike offers to talk about it, but Simon instead riffs on an earlier joke he made and clucks like a chicken. Mike tries again, but Simon just keeps clucking.
“Look a man in the eye when you shake his hand.” That’s one of the many small lessons in adulthood given to 11-year-old Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) in LUV, a Baltimore-set coming-of-age story from writer-director Sheldon Candis. The film follows one day in that city with Woody and his Uncle Vincent (Common) where, instead of dropping him off at school, Vincent takes Woody along and promises to teach him “real-world shit”: how a man handles his business. The business in question here begins as a loan application for a restaurant and club that Vincent is trying to start, but their journey through the city soon disperses into a larger, more complex web of people and places, all fraught with the weight of personal history.
That history is sold especially well by an ensemble of strong supporting actors; we learn that Vincent is an ex-convict, and the pursuit of his plan puts him on a collision course with old friends and enemies and people who could go either way. If the concept up for grabs here is masculinity, especially African-American masculinity, Charles S. Dutton, Danny Glover, and Dennis Haysbert all contribute forceful arguments to the conversation. As Vincent’s old associates, they breathe life into their characters in a matter of minutes. That’s all they need to convey years of history, of struggles that stretch back from before Woody was born and take on the status of the mythic when seen through his eyes.
But the standout here is Common. At first, it’s eminently clear why Woody would look up to Vincent as a role model: the sharp-dressed man in a flashy Benz, glad-handing and persuasive. His rapport with Woody is easy yet confident and authoritative. He seems to glide between the world of legitimate business and the daggers-and-smiles milieu of his old drug game with a kind of ease, not playing different roles, but with the kind of code-switching that comes with a keen understanding of people. Yet, Common imbues Vincent’s persona with a vulnerability under the bravado, an insecurity that shimmers through and must be consciously quashed because his survival depends on it. “If you show them weakness, they’re going to get you,” Vincent offers as another lesson to Woody, and the way that the story plays out seems convinced of that truth.
It’s in that kind of trajectory where the film shows its seams. At this point, any story that invokes the Baltimore drug world is likely to invite (mostly unfortunate) comparisons to David Simon and The Wire; this film even features a number of alums from the show. In many ways, Candis makes it clear that he’s exploring different territory here, a character piece rather than a systematic or structural one. He certainly finds the life in smaller, more intimate moments, such as when Vincent gives Woody a driving lesson in an empty parking lot. (There are parallels here with a scene in festival contemporary Dominga Sotomayor’s Thursday Till Sunday, where Lucía receives a similar driving lesson; the mobility of the car is posited as an emblem of the autonomy of adulthood, but that mobility is tied up with driving toward a host of challenges and complications.)
But those smaller moments are often overshadowed by the larger and bloodier ones, and as the film charges along with desperate inevitability toward an American Dream skewered on the harsh realities of life, things seem to fall apart; the childhood subjectivity carefully cultivated in the early parts of the film becomes subsumed into the stratagems of criminal maneuvering. The way that both are compressed into the span of an hour and a half forces juxtapositions and transitions that are at best unnecessarily rushed and at worst problematically lurid.
Yet to judge that fracture as the result of clear missteps—third-act problems or mishandling of tone—would be giving short shrift to the work Candis has done here. If the overshadowing of Woody and Vincent’s relationship by the drug game feels like a betrayal of the audience, the film understands the full implications of that betrayal. After all, if we find the quieter, more nuanced moments between an uncle and a nephew to be more compelling and more illuminating, the film also seems to ask us: Which story do you think Woody and Vincent would have preferred to be in?