The first bona fide “Best International Feature Film” contender for the 2021 Oscars makes its stateside festival debut. Representing Switzerland, My Little Sister is a devastating cancer drama by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond. The incomparable Nina Hoss stars alongside Lars Eidinger, playing twins rocked by the threat of permanent separation. Eidinger’s Sven suffers from leukemia, a bone marrow cancer that lays cellular waste and bloodstains flesh. Without hesitation, his sister Lisa (Hoss) agrees to a transplant operation. While waiting for the results, Lisa realizes Sven is the only steady fixture in her chaotic world, keeping her afloat.
Chuat and Reymond combine interior navigation with spellbinding family melodrama to show the beauty in sibling devotion. Even though she’s precious minutes or hours younger, this doesn’t stop Lisa from doing everything she can for Sven while he’s alive. They’re adamant he not spend weeks on end in a sterile hospital room for a recovery that isn’t guaranteed. Conversely, their loved ones believe they are chasing a lost cause when they should be reprioritizing their lives.
For Sven, multiple radiation treatments await. Meanwhile, Lisa is expected to stand by her husband’s decision to uproot their family from Munich to Switzerland to accept his five-year headmaster position at a lavish learning facility in the Swiss Alps. Hoss and Eidinger are equally mesmerizing at showing the agony of life ripped against their will.
In the end, what is more important than spending our limited time with those closest to our hearts? Somehow, society has devolved into viewing death as something natural and not worth dwelling over. There’s a grieving period, yes, but everyone is expected to go back to their respective routines as if they’re the same individual before dealing with indescribable loss. Gone is empathy for the finality of death — memories may last, but you will never hold a sister, mother, son, brother, aunt, daughter, grandmother, or grandfather ever again once deceased. Chuat and Reymond deserve our sincere gratitude for not taking death lightly.
Sven was a successful playwright and actor for many years. He worked with a small theatre company run by Lisa’s ex-boyfriend David (Thomas Ostermeier). Because of his diagnosis and subsequent treatment, he was forced to pull out of many planned shows, including a version of Hamlet so reliant on his wunderkind performance that no understudy could compare.
Since there’s no assurance Sven’s cancer won’t return, David refuses to move forward on a new production. Judging by his fatigued appearance and physical unsteadiness, David believes his former marquee attraction isn’t healthy enough to perform. The twins view this as a personal betrayal, arguing that Sven’s craft is the only medicine to bring him peace. Though it’s unrealistic to expect David to bend when his reputation and finances are on the line, the audience is compelled to side with the desperate siblings. All they want is to keep Sven’s creative wheels spinning until they can no longer go another rotation. Illness may lead to an early final bow, but as long as he’s upright and breathing, this showman refuses to hide behind the curtains.
Concurrently, Lisa’s relationships with her husband (Jen Albinus) and mother (Marthe Keller) dissolve when they dehumanize Sven by sequestering him to the back of their minds. In their view, he’s as good as gone, so why not embrace harsh reality and move forward? Lisa is stunned by their apathy, especially since her children are so fond of their delightful Uncle Sven, who cracks jokes and plays with them despite his ailment.
Furthermore, the script demonstrates how bodily depletion can deprive the enjoyment of essential human connection. Sven has all the love and sensuality in the world to give, but his body simply won’t function the way it once did. Being gay already comes with its social hardships, but adding cancer to the equation only amplifies undesirability feelings.
With performances deeply entrenched in character ordeal and interpersonal ties, My Little Sister could not have come at a better time. The awards hopeful reminds us how fleeting life can be. Material comfort and career affluence will never compare to the riches that come from spending months, years, or a lifetime with those you cherish most.