THE STORY – Lisa gives up her ambitions as a playwright in Berlin and moves to Switzerland with her husband. When her twin brother, a star actor at Berlin’s Schaubühne theatre, falls ill with cancer, Lisa returns to the German capital.
THE CAST – Nina Hoss, Lars Eidinger, Marthe Keller & Jens Albinus
THE TEAM – Stéphanie Chuat & Véronique Reymond (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 99 Minutes
By Daniel Howat
From directing pair Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, “My Little Sister” (“Schwesterlein”) is a powerful emotional drama about a twin brother and sister fighting through personal tragedies. Cancer dramas come with their fair share of cliches, and this film is no different, but it’s saved by outstanding performances that keep us invested from beginning to end.
Sven (Lars Eidinger) is an accomplished stage actor diagnosed with leukemia. His twin sister Lisa (Nina Hoss), a successful playwright in her own regard, must shoulder the weight of her brother’s diagnosis and help Sven navigate the challenges of his career as his health deteriorates. Rather than focus primarily on Sven, the film largely shows the impact that such a devastating diagnosis has on those around him, specifically Lisa. Even before he got sick, Sven dominated much of the attention, both because of his star profile and a huge ego. Now, he still has that huge ego, even if his body can’t sustain it well.
Hoss is spectacular in one of the best performances of the year. She never crosses the line into melodrama, even when the script veers that direction. Her assured performance keeps every moment believable which is a vital trait in a film as emotionally heavy as this. Lisa is more than simply Sven’s brother. She is a success in her own right, along with being a mother, a wife and a daughter. Each of her relationships pulls her in different directions. Her kids need to be cared for, of course, while they split time with her husband, a boarding school director. Her mother isn’t handling Sven’s diagnosis well at all and gives Lisa a hard time for not being as successful as her brother. All the while, Lisa cares for Sven, literally giving her blood for a transfusion.
Naturally, this is a heavy movie. It’s an emotionally exhausting experience to sit in the shoes of Lisa. The screenplay, while buoyed by the strong performances, struggles to avoid predictability. We largely know where this cancer drama is going to take us. Throughout the film, we see the bouts of sickness, the hair loss, the anger, the tears. We know it isn’t going to end well. Thankfully, Lisa’s perspective gives a fresh enough viewpoint to keep us invested.
Though the emotional weight is carried by Lisa, Eidinger gives a rich performance as well. Sven is angry, entitled and full of pain. Wearing bright and colorful wigs askew for most of the film, Sven hides his hair loss and largely tries to ignore his ever-decreasing health. His bitterness mostly affects Lisa, on whom he unleashes his anger.
Within all of Lisa’s struggling relationships, “My Little Sister” packs on the melodrama. It’s easy to lose interest as it feels as though each hardship may be added to wring the tears out of the audience. However, the naturalistic feel of the movie helps to counterbalance its tearjerker impulses. Roving and free-moving cinematography capture the performances that never overplay their hand, bringing believability to even the weepiest of moments. Still, this movie is sure to press on some emotional buttons.
“My Little Sister” walks a very fine line. Given the nature of the movie, I think my guard was up for much of the film. I was hesitant to let it in emotionally, not wanting to give in to any manipulation that it might’ve tried. In the end, I’m not sure I needed that guard. This is a lovely and truly affecting film. Yes, it steers a bit close to the cliches of the genre, but it’s ultimately a painful story of the love between a brother and sister, something we get too few of.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Nina Hoss is breathtaking and heartbreaking. It brings so much weight and emotional honesty to the story. This isn’t simply a tearjerker. It’s a very affecting watch.
THE BAD – The film walks the line of melodrama and there are many tropes of the cancer drama genre here.