Some people just aren’t ready to care for children. Billy (Reid Scott) might be one of those people. And it’s not like he, or his girlfriend, Melissa (Serinda Swan), are having a kid of their own, even though she really wants to. He’s less sure. She thinks he’s not putting in a full effort into getting her pregnant. Well, they wind up with a child anyway, but not in the way that you’d expect, unless of course you read the title of the film, Sister, and figured it out.
Billy’s mother (Barbara Hershey) is widowed in one of the film’s earliest scenes. She’s been looking after Niki (Grace Kaufman), an 11-year-old on so many medications that it’s hard to keep track. But, the death causes a mental breakdown that leads to hospitalization, so Billy is called and told that Niki will be on a flight to L.A. the next morning. It’ll only be for a month, he’s told, but as we all know, people estimating time doesn’t always wind up being the most accurate. I lost track, but Niki stays a lot longer than that.
Niki does not start the film as the happiest of people. She’s mean to everyone, dismissive of everything, and spends most of her time drawing. But that changes as Sister progresses. Billy changes, too. Initially, he wants nothing to do with Niki; by the end, he won’t let her out of his sights. This becomes especially true when the mother gets out of the hospital and wants to regain custody, even though Billy believes that Niki is thriving in L.A. since living with him.
The film essentially works on two levels. The first is the possibility that, perhaps, we’re over-diagnosing and over-prescribing our children. Billy takes Niki off her medications, believing that she doesn’t need them, and you get to see, well, how effective this is. We also get to see how Niki’s move to L.A. affects everyone’s lives, how they all grow — or regress — as people, and how much family does really mean. And Sister does work on both of these levels. The custodial battle at the end isn’t the most engaging, but everything surrounding it is.
The film is touching. It’s emotionally involving, has some interesting characters, and the moments that it tries to stir emotion — which happen more frequently in its second half than the first — are effective. The story is one you’ve seen before, even if not in these exact terms, but it’s a good one, and the addition of the mental health issue adds to it. There’s always something going on, or something to watch, in Sister, even if it does feel like it’s sometimes meandering around.
Another reason it’s successful is because Grace Kaufman is one of the good child actors. This type of role can’t be easy to play, and it takes someone with a lot of understanding, intelligence, and range to do properly. Kaufman pulls it off. Despite not being the lead, she’s the most integral part of the film, and had she done a poor job, the entire film would have crumbled around her. Luckily, she’s convincing and compelling as Niki, and the transformation she undergoes during the film — while still retaining hints of her past self — is a joy to watch.
Less can be said of Reid Scott as our lead. It’s not that he’s bad — although in some scenes he certainly wasn’t good — but it’s like he was overmatched by his younger co-star. And everyone else. He didn’t ever seem comfortable in the role. All of the other actors were naturalistic and felt like they were just real people in these situations; I never got the impression that he wasn’t acting. Outside of him, the film also feels a bit long at 109 minutes, but that might just be because of the less-than-interesting custody subplot.
Sister is a good movie. It’s emotionally involving from almost the opening moments, and it holds our attention — as well as that level of involvement — until its conclusion. Thanks to having more than one thing to deal with, it doesn’t stagnate or begin to feel stale. It has a wonderful performance from Grace Kaufman; if she didn’t do a good job, the movie would have failed. Sister is enjoyable, and I think you should see it.