This Dutch oddity by Robert Jan Westdijk was originally released back in 1995, before the craze of reality TV would emerge five years on. Confined to the arthouses of Europe, Little Sister (Zusje) fit snugly into that slip of space which harboured the slighter dramas of cinema of the time.
Looking at the film today, it’s hard not to draw parallels with the present online culture of social media; Little Sister predates the culture of vlogging, which now seems to be the most natural extension of ordinary adolescent life in the parts of the world where young people have such access. But because this is cinema, the film has a fixed point of fictional drama from which the ultra-realism revolves around. Essentially the story of a boy, a girl, a camcorder and one dangerous family secret, Westdijk observes sibling relationships with the touchy hand of a novice, worrying little about style or precision but always determined to present a sincere portrait of his troubled characters.
Daantje (Kim van Kooten) is a young woman living a free and easy life in her apartment in Amsterdam. One morning, her estranged older brother Martijn (Martijn Zuidewind) arrives unannounced armed with a camcorder. Somewhat puzzled by, though not entirely opposed, to Martijn’s visit, Daantje allows her brother to stay and rather complacently puts up with his constant filming of her life (which constitutes the entirety of the film). Martijn teasingly follows his sister around with his camera, sometimes flirting with her and other times finding ingratiating ways to push her buttons.
Daantje doesn’t seem to mind much. That is, not until Martijn oversteps his boundaries and starts filming her lover and her friends. No longer an innocuous observer hovering in the peripheries of his sister’s life, Martijn becomes a stalking menace who brandishes his camera like the invasive, probing weapon that it is. Consigned to her brother’s increasingly erratic follies, Daantje finds her personal life teetering on collapse as Martijn methodically works to destroy her friendships. Daantje seems to know the reason behind Martijn’s reprehensible behaviour. At no cost, however, will she conjure past demons at the behest of her pleading and demanding brother.
A dark family comedy about even darker family secrets, Little Sister succeeds in forcing viewers into the small, private confessional world of these two hapless screw-ups. Though Martijn himself is barely seen on film, much of his worldview and emotional output is projected onto the winsome ingénue that is Daantje (played by a brazenly charming van Kooten). At some point, it’s clear how much of a single entity these siblings really are, their movements and strides in a clumsy communication achieving an awkward union of possessiveness and control. Neither party is entirely open with one another, but they are complicit in their actions together.
Even in Daantje’s attempt to turn the tables on her brother, there’s the undeniable sense that, no matter the open displays of desperation and contempt, this is all just a game. Without ever fully divulging their personal hang-ups (to either viewer or each other), brother and sister speak a language of emotional code. With only a few slips of flashback to provide any context, the viewer becomes increasingly drawn into the claustrophobic no man’s zone of their psychic instability. At times, Westdijk’s comedy plays like a suspense-thriller, with the tense rivalry between the leads threatening violence. Arguably a far more demented cousin of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, Little Sister manages an insightful revelation through the contentious moment of familial destruction, where the tears follow laughs by just a hair’s breadth.
Facets offers Little Sister an opportunity to be finally seen by North American viewers. This film was not easily available before and it finally makes its way on DVD thanks to Facets, which has been offering an unusual and interesting selection of “foreign” films for many years now. Since the film was shot on video, an indefinite amount of graininess in the picture is to be expected. Obviously, visuals in this film are not crucial anyway, given the fact that its entirety is shot on a handheld camera; all blurring, shakiness and out-of-focus shots are intentional.
Facets, ultimately, delivers a clear transfer free of any unwanted image disturbances. Sound and dialogue come through very nicely for the most part although, once again, the few compromises in quality are deliberate. The film is in Dutch language with English subtitles. There are no extras provided on the disc.
Understandably, the appeal of a film like Little Sister would have undoubtedly been much greater upon its initial release, when stories documented with the unflinching realist method of home video seemed new and fresh at the time. In the pouring avalanche of minimalist one-camera filmmaking that has followed the film (everything from Dogme to Youtube-produced videos), the novelty of the film’s premise may seem to pale once you consider the surrounding landscape of today’s independent film.
However, that doesn’t diminish the mesmerizing effect that Westdijk’s story produces, seducing viewers at first with an affable comedy before hijacking their emotions with a startling twist that is sure to make them squirm by the film’s final distressing moments. If you stick around during the closing credits, Westdijk resumes the comedy— albeit now screened through the morbidity of his characters’ grisly truths.