Twelve-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) lives in a ramshackle apartment in an industrial valley at the base of the Swiss Alps with his restless older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux). Every day Simon takes the cable car up to the opulent ski resorts above, stealing equipment from the rich tourists to resell to the local kids back down below. Meanwhile Louise drifts through an aimless life of dead- end jobs and promiscuity. As Louise becomes more and more dependent on his meagre earnings, Simon ups the stakes by ingratiating himself with a wealthy tourist (Gillian Anderson) and her family, and – even more dangerously – by partnering with a crooked British seasonal worker (Martin Compston). But this newfound 'wealth’ does not transform his life in the way he imagined, and his fragile relationship with Louise fractures into dangerous new territory.

Class lines drawn in the snow in surprising sibling drama.

Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) is a smooth, blonde angel of a kid. He has the bug-eyed innocence of an underfed 12-year-old. Simon is too, an old soul. He is the kind of kid that gives the adults here pause; as if they are torn between the urge to slap some sense into him or else offer a reassuring hug that will mean much more to them than it does to a child who has learned too early how to live without that sort of thing. Which is to say that Simon is a hustler, a grifter forever on the make. He lives in a grotty high-rise at the foot of some anonymous Alpine resort, a tourist playground for the idle and the moneyed. Simon’s métier is petty theft. Organised and methodical, Simon has confidence and skill, moving unnoticed, a kid amongst other kids, the only difference is that he has no time for games. He flogs whatever he can lay his hands on, but mostly it’s ski accessories; he later shifts them at a bargain to punters suspicious of both the price and the salesman.

Lean, terse, and intensely moving

The place Simon calls home practically wheezes desperation. It’s a tiny flat of dark shadows and emotional claustrophobia. He makes his bed on the couch while his sister Louise (Lea Seydoux) gets the single bedroom to entertain her lovers. Seydoux is already a famous beauty but here her pretty face seems forever twisted into a pouty squint, like she is caught in a flinch that never relents. In her late twenties, Louise’s life seems nothing more than crap jobs that don’t last and bad men who linger too long.

Encountering strangers, Simon is in the habit of telling a story that explains he is an orphan, both parents dead in an accident. At least that is the yarn he shops to Mike (Martin Compston, excellent), a chef who works in the resort, after the latter nails the kid in mid-larceny. We have no idea whether Simon’s tale is a lie, but Mike believes him, and soon he’s a willing accomplice. Later, Simon offers a completely different identity to Kristin (Gillian Anderson, very good). Met on the slopes, Simon sells this wealthy mother of two a story of how his folks run a fancy hotel. She’s charmed, but there’s a faint disquiet in the way she gazes intently on this cute kid with the quick eyes. Does Kristin see and understand the longing plea in his eyes while he watches how she lavishes so much care and attention on her kids?

Of course, Simon and Louise have each other. Sort of. Simon’s ill-gotten gains are enough to keep them both going; he even spoils Louise with gifts. Still, Louise is careless, neglectful, and resentful, spending recklessly, withholding affection, chasing men (who leave once they catch a glimpse of the messy life she conducts). Simon pushes her. She pulls back. It’s a situation destined for heartbreak.

Lean, terse, and intensely moving, this funny at times drama from Switzerland won the Silver Bear for director Ursula Meier last year in Berlin. Since then critics have claimed the film as yet another entry in the growing sub-genre of post-GFC movies. Certainly Meir and her co-writers Antoine Jaccoud and Gilles Taurand have a cool eye for cultural inequities, subtle social boundaries and the smooth treacheries of a survivalist economy where heartless indifference is a virtue and kindness is a lonely stranger. There’s an irony here too: the film urges us to readdress the terms of a moral economy; that is, is Simon and his hustle that different from all the other exploiters of the tourist trade?

True, the film has a quality – aside from its politics – that is somewhat reminiscent of latter-day Ken Loach. Meier shares with Loach and other realists an interest in lived experience, the day to day; a sense of the impact of what is to live in a specific place at a certain moment and its human cost.

But then, as worthy as that all sounds, I’m not sure that’s Meier’s project. This isn’t so much a movie about material poverty than it is about emotional neglect. Bounce-back tough and bright, Simon is a portrait of adolescent sadness that pounds at the heart. And as a picture of loneliness, it’s magnificent. His stealing isn’t an attempt to buy love; he’s out to control Louise, remind her that he’s alive. No wonder some brave souls have been quick to invoke Truffaut and the Dardenne brothers in trying to position this film’s delicate and winning mystique (which if you haven’t guessed, is tricky as hell to evoke in print). Seydoux is equal to Mottet Klein; her yearning to break from the trap of family obligation powers the film’s second half.

Shot by Agnes Godard, renowned for her work with the great Claire Denis, in a supple mood by turns cruel and light, the film’s style – a steady pace, a casual mood with an emphasis on behavior over plot-making, an active and mobile camera, often hand-held and observational – is deceptively 'documentary’. Yet each set up and image is weighted with poetic potential. Once we figure out what Simon is up to, the mood becomes tense and that feeling of danger never fully abates; it’s there in each unwelcome look and every suspicious glance. When the siblings hit a low point, their world at the bottom of the mountain – all mud and lumpy buildings – appears so bleak and barren it could be the end of the world.

This movie, which is actually called L'enfant d'en haut (The Child From Above), carries with it a real sting, like an unprotected hand gripping ice cold metal. It’s a dazzling mix of the familiar and the strange. Just when I though I had it pegged it caught me by surprise, and left me wondering and bewildered, and that’s a rare feeling worth savouring.

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1 hour 37 min
In Cinemas 31 October 2013,