In My Little Sister, a failed playwright, Lisa (Nina Hoss), is somehow the most composed and reliable person in her family. Her brother, Sven (Lars Eidinger), is on the losing end of a bout with cancer. With no family of his own and a mother without a single nurturing impulse, he falls under the care of his sister as his body slowly corrodes and his mind is unable to cope with it. Joining Sven on the playwright’s back are her two young children, a rocky marriage, and a stagnant career.
Even if this sounds familiar and potentially dry, My Little Sister works because the directors, Stephanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond, don’t emphasize the drama. It’s allowed to ebb and flow at its own pace. When combined with the subtle acting and iceberg writing, you find yourself leaning in, even when the movie’s drama is seemingly at an ebb. Neither the story nor characters are extraordinary in any way, but there’s certainly a lot of value in the dramatically deadpan, Hemingway-esque delivery. Realism in storytelling is an overrated virtue; honesty isn’t.
“…Sven…on the losing end of a bout with cancer…falls under the care of his sister…”
Normally, actors are the least interesting part of a film—the forks and spoons to a delicious meal. The only real differentiating factor is whether you get plastic or silver. This isn’t the case with My Little Sister, particularly with Hoss, but also with Eidinger (though he gets the showier part). Hoss carries the movie’s burden of being a “brother’s keeper” sob story. In the same way, her character carries the burdens of everyone around her, including her own. It’s on her shoulders to not give up too much emotional ground yet still relate her cavalcade of feelings, as well as to exhibit both vulnerability and strength at the same time. Any spoon or fork can switch it up, but communicating real-time contradictions is tough.
By the end of the film, Lisa goes down a particular path that—while there’s not too much attention paid to it—betrays the story’s restraint up to that point. It’s an attempt to give Sven’s suffering a purpose and Lisa’s future some momentum. Not that every movie about struggle has to be a goat sacrifice to nihilism, but there are ways to give Sven and Lisa meaning without feeling like the last page of a best-selling tearjerker. It’s too neat. Not every story looks good with a red bow on it.
Up until then, however, My Little Sister is an honest, panoramic story about a family at its ugliest and most inspiring. The film doesn’t work too hard for your attention because it doesn’t need to. It has the goods, and it’s up to you whether or not you want them.
"…you find yourself leaning in, even when the movie’s drama is seemingly at an ebb."