“My Skinny Sister” (“Min lilla syster”) is writer-director Sanna Lenken’s feature debut and it’s a good one – if you like delving into the psyche of adolescence, of course. The Swedish/German co-pro speaks to many of the strengths and dilemmas that can come of having a sister; a lifetime bond to a kindred spirit of your blood – one I, frankly, as an only child, can only imagine. I looked at this film as a proclamation of love, camaraderie, heartbreak, and regeneration, and all of this is challenged by a harrowing disease called anorexia. The film, too, is a part of TIFF Kids, offering a learned experience from the perspective of a twelve year old girl, a quintessential ‘peer’ of the potential audience.
“My Skiny Sister” is a portrait of two sisters – twelve year old Stella (Rebecka Josephson) and her older sister Katja (Amy Deasismont). Stella, as our protagonist, admires Katja. She’s growing into her body, her mind, and her sexuality as she watches her hardworking figure-skating star of a sister progress in the competitive sport, trying hard to imitate her. When she discovers that Katja is starving herself, she is propelled into an ether of unidentifiable emotion and discovery. Their parents, still together, are shamelessly oblivious to it all until Stella ends up in the principal’s office for punching a mirror in the school bathroom.
The film blatantly explores body image and the pressures put on women under the most scrutinous eye – our own. This is made clear from one of the first lines of dialogue when Stella enters the stands at one of Katja’s skating competitions. Stella comments on the looks of all the young skater’s – “Oooh, she looks great!” – and the tone – the pressures – of image and body control on youth becomes rampant.
It’s a serious role that adults play to teach acceptance and understanding of all body types, and to be examples of such behaviour. But adults are partial to it, too. As a 27 year old woman I feel no differnet about my body hair than Stella – I want to shave it all. I’ve joked with my partner that I’m going to stop and let it run wild, but every day I shave. Why?
Many of my insecurities and body image issues are a direct product of the same viral, consumerist market that’s existed and put pressure on women for years. The media does nothing but reiterate unhealthy trends that youth consume and, never addressed or questioned, leads to danger and some times death in youth and adults alike.
“My Skinny Sister” draws attention to two more conundrums in female and familial culture. The first is the act of denying compliments and the second is the problem of fathers coddling daughters (or more widely, a parent coddling their child).
When women deny compliments – in the film Katja is complimented on her great skating routine to which she replies, “I made mistakes!” instead of accepting the compliment – the “inner body bully” (as termed by developmental psychologist Robyn Silverman) emerges. It could be that the compliment does not align with our own definition of self so we reject it, or that we want to seem modest and self-effacing. Either way, the mental health affects on our abilities, our outlook and our potential are all adversely affected when this response becomes a routine. When we are able to accept compliments we are able to accept ourselves, even if we don’t agree with the compliment.*
“My Skinny Sister” paints a very dynamic parenthood for the two girls. Lasse and Karin are two hardworking people and very proud parents; proud of their hardworking competitive daughter Katja, giving her gifts and attending every competition with Stella. When they find out about Katja’s disease, Karin is full of active questions – How can we help you? What are our next steps? – while Lasse is full of excuses – You’re working so hard. You’ve pushed yourself too much. You’re under a lot of stress. I found this difference in response very interesting.
Lasse coddles his daughter throughout the entire film, making excuses for her poor attitude, giving in to her demands, and encouraging her to continue to push herself to the limit. When parents coddle their children, they are prone to entitlement and a lack of self-control. Lasse enables Katja’s behaviour by creating excuses for it and defending her behaviour to the family. In a sense, he’s overparenting, and when this occurs, the child isn’t given the opportunity to develop their inner resources.
In the father-daughter realm, especially, when a young woman is raised with a man doing everything or nearly everything for her, she is liable to become dependent, with inherent expectations on others to do things for her that she is very capable of doing herself. I’m not a parent but I believe in giving children autonomy, and teaching them the power of completing even the most menial tasks on their own.
“My Skinny Sister” a really powerful first feature. In the likes of Lynne Ramsay, Lenken’s ability to delve into the heart of an all-encompassing mess and make it feel at once familiar and foreign is a portrait and story the world needs to see.
*It must be stated that compliments, of course, are not always warranted or presented in a safe and acceptable environment, referring to street harassment and cat calling. Everyone has the right to deny unwarranted compliments. There is a great organization called iHollback that aims to end street harassment. Check them out for some great info and resources!