I knew walking into "My Skinny Sister" that the film – which explores a teen-aged ice skater’s eating disorder – had the dangerous possibility of falling into the cheesy After-School Special / Lifetime Movie category. Luckily, it didn’t.
Instead, this first feature film by Swedish writer and director Sanna Lenken took a unique perspective and told the story of the struggling skater through the eyes of her sister, 12-year-old Stella.
Stella (Rebecka Josephson) is fixated on her sister, Katja (Amy Deasismont). Like most sisters, the two have a complicated relationship that varies greatly in temperature. At times, they interact in a warm and silly fashion, but other times, Katja is cold, controlling and verbally abusive.
One of the most redeeming aspects of the film – which also saves it from being a cliché – is that it unfolds through Stella’s eyes and therefore is less about having an eating disorder and more about what it’s like to be close to someone who does. For awhile, Stella is the only person aware that her sister is starving herself and she moves between compassion and anger. She also tortuously moves between keeping her sister's secret and asking for help from others.
Although the film contains graphic scenes such as a close-up of Katja sticking her fingers down her throat to induce vomiting, for the most part, it focuses on the abstract aspects of eating disorders and mental illness.
It reminds us of the power that people whom we care about have over us, especially when we are young. Although flawed, Katja is glamorous to Stella. For most of the film, Stella wants to be a figure skater like her sister, despite the fact she’s less talented on the ice. Both her desire to emulate Katja – as well as her crush on Katja’s 35-year-old skating coach – inspire her to keep skating despite her lack of success. She also squelches her fascination of bugs and nature, and is sometimes distant from her friends, because she is obsessed with Katja.
The film also points out the amount of attention Katja receives, first for being a promising figure skater and later when her parents learn of her bulimia and anorexia. As is sometimes true in real life, the beautiful and the selfish person hoards the limelight, leaving the kinder and more sincere person – who happens to be plainer in appearance and quieter in personality – more or less ignored. Stella is often overlooked by her already-stressed-out parents and although she disapproves of her sister’s behavior, she is jealous of her ability to deeply rattle her self-absorbed parents.
The bits of humor in the otherwise somber film are much appreciated. At one point, Stella runs away to the skating coach’s house, tells him about Katja’s food issues (which he already suspected) and then kisses him on the lips. He is surprised, uninterested and immediately asks if her parents know where she is. Stella later tells Katja she kissed her coach but that he didn’t like it so the good news is that he’s clearly not a pedophile.
Josephson is a delight to watch. Her portrayal of Stella is warm and sensitive and by the end of the film, when she evolves into her own person and steps out of Katja’s shadow, Josephson displays her character's transcendence from awkward sidekick to coming-of-age young woman with a seemingly successful future.
"My Skinny Sister" is part of the Milwaukee Film Festival's "Passport: Sweden" series. It screens again on Wednesday, Sept. 30 at the Avalon Theater at 10 p.m. and on Monday, Oct. 5 at the Oriental Theatre at 7 p.m.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.