Avoiding mawkish trappings, terminal illness drama “My Little Sister,” from directing duo Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond — Switzerland’s contender for the international feature film Oscar — centers on a woman whose ties to men and her mother have impacted her professional fulfillment.
Twins born to an artistic family, Lisa (Nina Hoss) and Sven (Lars Eidinger), an actor fighting cancer, understand each other best through storytelling. The screenplay’s nimble delivery of exposition in organic dialogue illuminates how their presence in each other’s lives reliably saves them from their respective woes.
Eidinger gives into the physical pain of his character, starved for the stage and wilting away, without abandoning the suave arrogance of a formerly successful thespian. Married and raising two children, an already overwhelmed Lisa, a playwright with scarce time to write, shifts her focus to caring for her older (by two minutes) brother.
“I have plans too,” she tells her husband Martin (Jens Albinus). His position at an elite school interferes with her goals. Amidst the emotional upheaval and her partner’s inflexibility, the mundane act of taking a shower seems to offer the only reprise from the maternal, marital and fraternal demands that consume her. It’s in those details that the writing excels.
Hoss (“Phoenix,” “Barbara”), one of Europe’s most splendid actresses, renders an interpretation grounded on Lisa’s profound desperation to properly fulfill all the roles on her plate while trying to preserve her ill brother’s spirits. More importantly, her pronounced facial expressions, often charged with disbelief, speak to how she feels about those dismissing her concerns or solutions. Hoss masterfully doses that repressed rage.
Classical music accentuates liminal scenes that signal her futile efforts to regain control of her life. Inching closer to her breaking point with each frustrating exchange, and with Sven’s state deteriorating, Lisa chooses to write. The agile camera, handheld by cinematographer Filip Zumbrunn, contributes a graceful realism with its closeness to their every move.
Since it’s missing substance about the pair’s relationship over the years to justify the like-mindedness of their bond, some of the story’s beats don’t congeal. Notwithstanding that narrative quibble, “My Little Sister” is frank and poignant. With a distinctive angle and the rawness of the cast’s first-rate performances, Chuat and Reymond elevate a premise that could have, in other hands, veered into the realm of the uninspired.
‘My Little Sister’
(In German and French with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Available Jan.15 via virtual cinemas, including Laemmle Theatres