Earlier in 2012, there was a lot of hullabaloo surrounding Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike . Generally speaking, that movie falls within European cinema’s penchant for hyperrealism. Regular people doing regular things and, generally speaking, rotten things happen to them, especially to the children.

Critics loved it. Except me.

I hated every minute of it—from the moment the little jerk (named Cyril) first appears on screen; to the moments his father cruelly and casually rejects him (twice!); to the moment Cyril is conned by a local punk into bashing two guys in the head for their money; to the moment Cyril nearly dies when one of the bashees takes revenge.

Hated it, hated it, hated it. Wanted someone to burn the negative—or, assuming it was shot digitally, erase the hard drive.

Even though Cyril has perfectly legitimate reasons for behaving like a complete asshole—abandoned by his family, taken advantage of by punks, bullied by nearly everyone else—I hated the movie and I hated him. (Just to be clear: I hated it.)

So, why do I like Sister so much? On its face, it’s not much different from The Kid with a Bike .

There’s a kid (Simon, played well by Kacey Mottet Klein) who’s been dealt a shitty hand; he exploits people around him by stealing—and not too smartly—at a ski resort. The adults aren’t much better than he is. In fact, his older sister, Louise (Léa Seydoux, whom many will recognize from Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Midnight in Paris ), may be even less mature than he is. And Simon does really, really dumb things, if only to survive.

But he never bites anyone, unlike Cyril in Bike , who uses biting as his primary means of defense. Biting means you’ve crossed a line from civilized to feral.

In Sister , Simon and Louise have a kind of love-hate relationship that is sometimes so brutal and ferocious, it seems as if they may actually kill each other. But there’s no biting. Strangling? Sure. Kicking? You bet. But no one sinks teeth into anyone else’s flesh.

That’s a long-winded and admittedly subjective reason to love one movie and loathe another—but, as my father would say, “them’s the breaks.”

Plus, when movies provoke reactions that border on the visceral, they’re doing something correctly, no matter how much we love or hate them.

So, back to Sister . Simon is a survivor. He accepts his crap lot in life and tries to make the best of it. He knows how to make the brand-new skis he’s stolen look aged so that they resemble garbage that’s been scavenged to make an extra buck. He knows to try to befriend wealthy skiers at the resort in order to steal from them. He even talks a kitchen worker into helping him rather than turning him in to the local authorities when the kitchen worker catches Simon pilfering food from an enormous pantry.

Louise, on the other hand, is a mess. She goes out with men who hit her, she quits jobs at a moment’s notice when she feels she’s been treated disrespectfully and she completely neglects Simon—leaving him for days to fend for himself.

Where the Swiss version of Child Protective Services is, I don’t know (maybe they’re all working in France for Polisse ). But it’s a small miracle that Simon has survived as long as he has.

There are several moments of hope—or faux hope—in this movie. The first is Gillian Anderson, a wealthy ski resort guest that Simon tries to con into loving him because he so desperately needs it. The second is that Louise occasionally has stints of humanity that reveal her to be a far more complex person than we originally think. Sister is wrenching, heartbreaking and remarkably assured. Writer-director Ursula Meier treats her characters with empathy and respect and, in the end, we see that their questionable behavior arises from a mixture of necessity, circumstance, survival instincts and luck.

Written and directed by Ursula Meier / With Kacey Mottet Klein and Léa Seydoux / The Screen / 
NR / 
97 min.