TIFF 2015 Review | Anorexia is a Family Affair in ‘My Skinny Sister’
Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness — and, seemingly, one of the fewest representations on the big screen. This summer’s Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy, for example, was criticized by some for minimizing the role of eating disorders in the singer’s premature death in order to tell a more “universal” story about addiction and depression. Perhaps because of its own culpability in fetishizing thinness (and because “women’s issues” are generally considered fodder for Lifetime), film has displayed a surprising indifference to eating-disorder stories despite the dramatic potential therein.
My Skinny Sister’s depiction of anorexia doesn’t go beyond what you’d get from middle-school health class: it’s something that happens to white, middle-class teenage girls with perfectionist tendencies. (That isn’t actually true.) But as the title suggests, Swedish writer-director Sanna Lenken isn’t so much concerned with the disease as much as how it twists and warps family dynamics around it.
At the center of this brisk, affecting, gently humorous drama is chubby preteen Stella (Rebecka Josephson). You can actually tell how far she is from adolescence — developmentally, if not in actual age — by her hyper-confidence. Attempting to follow her ice-skating older sister Katja (Amy Deasismont) into the rink, she asks a coach why she didn’t make the cut at try-outs in front of a group of her peers without a hint of self-consciousness. Later, she tries to seduce — in her own bumbling way — Katja’s thirtysomething trainer (Maxim Mehmet), about whom she writes romantic stories in a wonderful recognition of nascent female sexuality.
Other than the nonexistent moustache Katja has teasingly convinced her she’s sprouting — a telling example of how instantly contagious body dysmorphia can be — the biggest problem Stella encounters is when she’s pressured by her older sister into keeping her bulimic trips to the bathroom a secret — one that the younger girl intuits is something much bigger than herself without realizing the full gravity of the issue.
Katja’s struggles make for a fascinating backdrop to Stella’s marvelously observed coming of age, during which she realizes how important girls’ looks are — and how they’re not. Observing her sister, Stella has her own flirtations with denying herself food: she grimaces as she forces herself to eat the ice cream her oblivious parents ordered for her for her birthday. But Stella’s also refreshingly a girl who knows what she wants, and who’s mature enough to joke about pedophilia with her older sister in an unexpectedly hysterical denouement.
Katja, though, fares less well as a character; she’s much more an embodiment of symptoms than a flesh-and-bone girl. Her degeneration is quick, and her susceptibility to anorexia largely unexplained. (Despite the shallower character development, it’s arguably better that Lenken’s script doesn’t offer a simplistic cause-and-effect narrative to Katja’s illness.) The resolution is a tad too neat, and the film is certainly slight (no pun intended). Still, its compassion and its presence in a sparse field make My Skinny Sister feel necessary, if never quite meaty.