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MY LITTLE SISTER (2020) review

January 30, 2021


written by: Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond
produced by: Ruth Waldburger
directed by: Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond
rating: not rated
runtime: 99 min.
U.S. release date: January 15, 2021 (virtual cinema) & January 29, 2021 (Music Box Direct)


At times, “My Little Sister” is quite an emotional watch, as the writing/directing duo of Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond offer a strenuous, honest, and raw family drama, but when it ended I found myself wanting to watch again due to the two phenomenal lead performances. As written and performed they feel like such real characters, flaws and all, often feeling frustrated and helpless and often trying to push on with those feelings. The story follows a pair of somewhat estranged adult twin siblings, one of which has cancer, so those feelings are understood and anyone who’s gone through struggles with a sibling should appreciate the relatable characterization and portrayals here.

Although they are twins, the in-joke these siblings have is that Lisa Nielsen (Nina Hoss) was delivered two minutes after Sven (Lars Eidinger) arrived in this world. While they are close, their lives and lifestyles have separated them over the years, but their familial bond is deep and their careers have kept them close as well. Lisa is an acclaimed playwright who hasn’t written much lately and Sven is a celebrated gay stage actor in Berlin. She has mainly set aside her writing to follow and support her husband Martin’s (Jens Albinus) career as headmaster of a boarding school at the Swiss ski resort town of Leysin, where they live with their two children. However, such a focus on her ailing brother puts a strain on Lisa’s marriage, which is already showing stress fractures.



Having recently received a bone marrow transplant in hopes of improving his condition, Sven aims to get back to performing on stage with the support of Lisa, who once wrote roles for him in the past. Initially, the story starts in Berlin as the siblings reunite and the protective Lisa assists Sven in figuring out post-recovery life and whether or not there he can get back into acting for David (Thomas Ostermeier), who runs the local theatre company and had a past relationship with Lisa. Considering Sven’s condition is aggressive, it remains to be seen what quality of life awaits him, but Lisa is doing everything she can to surround him with an environment of comfort and calm and hope that he can resuscitate his acting career.

At first, Lisa makes plans for Sven to convalesce at their mother Kathy’s (the great Marthe Keller, bringing some maternal comedy to the mix) apartment, but she soon realizes that it’s not the best situation for Sven despite their mother’s good intentions. So, after it’s established that Sven is still too weak and not quite ready to tackle “Hamlet” (a play he knows by heart) on stage, Lisa takes him back to her home in Switzerland in hopes of helping him manage his recovery, but certain inevitable truths eventually surface, both about his illness and about her marriage, that compounds the added stress in her life.



As twins, Hoss and Eidinger establish an obvious closeness, as the actors align themselves with nuanced mannerisms and inflections that confirm their sibling bond. This is needed in order for Chuat and Redmond’s mostly restrained drama to work. There’s no outrageous hysterics from either of them, but moreso a building, underlying feeling of helpless dread for what the inevitable future will bring. Hoss impressively balances Lisa’s feelings of helplessness and grief for Sven and frustration with her husband, conveying a character who’s trying to hold it all together for the sake of all the family members around her – save for one final moment near the film’s conclusion which culminates all the emotions she has held in, manifesting itself on rage unleashed on a child’s scooter and a recycling bin outside an apartment complex.

The stress that Sven’s illness puts on Lisa’s marriage grows as the story unfolds and it’s something that is understandable and relatable. No spouse feels drawn out as the apparent “bad guy”, each character is written in such a way where a viewer can fully understand each of their respective points of view. Martin is as supportive as he can be without being too involved, knowing caring for her brother is of huge importance to Lisa. At the same time, he’s also seeing the one he loves becoming more and more stretched emotionally, even if she won’t admit it. Martin also has to make a crucial decision about accepting a promotion at his job, which would commit him (and therin his family) to staying in Switzerland another five years. That’s not what Lisa had in mind, since all along she had hoped to move back to Berlin and get back into writing. The thing is, something has prevented her from writing all this time – could be due to Sven’s condition or some form of artistic struggle – and locations may or may not play a factor in that.

Martin does his best to be patient and helpful, but he too shows a certain degree of helplessness as well. We witness he and Lisa taking the children out sledding as a playful respite from the drama that only the adults are aware of, only for the day to be brought down by the disappearance of a distraught and despondent Sven, who just received disappointing news from David via video chat. That leads to Sven hailing a cab for a night out of indulging in activities that will detract him from his heartache and sadness. It’s a needed albeit dangerous outlet for Sven and Eidinger never flinches from portraying his character with certain decisions that push him to the edge of feeling alive or ones which will ultimately determine how his life will end.



There is an unexpectedly harrowing outdoor scene between Martin and Sven that starts out beautiful and ends up absolutely horrifying. Cinematographer Filip Zumbrunn follows the pair as Martin agrees to tandem Sven on a paragliding tour of the snowy slopes. The camera swirls around them and looks down upon the trees in at first a relaxing manner and then as the situation nosedives as Sven has a panic attack in the sky, the camera becomes just as frantic as poor Martin (and viewers) as he desperately tries to help Sven. It feels like the kind of bad decision and honest mistake on Martin’s part that could occur in real life. You try to help someone who is sick still feel like they can partake in life’s activities, either the mundane or adventurous, not knowing when the illness is going to take over and put a stop to it all.

Eidinger has a tough role, especially in trying to avoid the cliches of a “cancer drama”, which typically include hysterical outbursts of crying, screaming and yelling. That can be a bit on-the-nose or overdramatic for some movies and “My Little Sister” chooses to show the disease’s gradual deterioration of body and spirit. We see Sven grasping to recapture a passionate life while being trapped in a body that’s wasting away. He doesn’t have the pallid yellowish skin that’s seen in other terminal disease movies, rather make-up artists Marc Hollenstein and Barbara Grundman assist in showing how Sven’s body eventually rejects the transplant as it turns his body inside out. All of it is extremely hard and painful for Lisa to witness as her grief changes and grows, while trying her best to provide Sven with the strength he is losing.

“My Little Sister” (or “Schwesterlein”, the film’s original German-language title, which means “little sister”) ends with some big and quiet emotional moments. While the film benefits from an astute screenplay and delicate direction from Chuat and Redmond, it’s the powerful work from Hoss and Eidinger, conveying real and troubled siblings, which will be remembered long after viewing.



RATING: ***1/2



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