My Little Sister does not have overly lofty ambitions. The German melodrama, directed by Swiss pair Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, is neither a sweeping, all-encompassing romance, nor an over-the-top look at a family in disarray, but something much quieter: a contemplative examination of the redemptive, healing power of art in a semi-dysfunctional family dealing with illness.
Lisa (Nina Hoss), a playwright whose single success is increasingly feeling like a lifetime ago, has since given up on her ambitions and moved to Switzerland where her husband Martin (Jens Albinus) resides. When her twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger) is released from the hospital — following a blood marrow transplant to tackle his cancer diagnosis, desperate to resume his part in the Schaubühne theatre’s production of Hamlet — Lisa takes him back to Switzerland to recuperate.
It’s a simple plot, no doubt, but it’s precisely this simplicity that allows for the emotion to seep through onto the screen. The central relationship between Lisa and Sven is the beating heart of the film, and as they attempt to adjust to the difficulties and challenges that come with cancer treatment — while also negotiating an incredibly difficult mother harboring delusions of grandeur — the strength of their bond comes to the fore. Hoss and Eidinger play off each other like true siblings, arguing and picking at each others’ weak spots with a tenderness that belies the care and respect they have for each other.
Two classical narratives encircle the protagonists: Sven’s desperation to return to the role of Hamlet in the belief that it will provide him with something new to aim for; and Lisa’s desire to rewrite Hansel and Gretel into something that will not only reinspire her creative process, but also provide Sven with his final performance. The concept in that fairytale of Gretel being the only one to save her and her brother from the evil witch is echoed in Lisa’s attempt to give Sven to live a somewhat normal life, despite the protests from her husband, who believes that morbidity of Sven’s final weeks will disturb their children.
My Little Sister is aware of its perspective and does not try to stretch beyond it. From Lisa and Martin’s conversations about private schools, to the gorgeous and perfectly decorated houses in the Swiss mountains, it’s quite clear that this is not a film striving to be particularly hard-hitting, despite its display of the instability that can arise from a terminal diagnosis in the family. With a sorrowful edge that emerges during the final third of the play (and some strong performances from its seasoned cast), My Little Sister is an interesting — if slightly tepid — examination of familial bonds in the strength of adversity.