You can pick your friends and your partners, but you can’t choose your family: but that doesn’t make sibling stories boring. The lack of agency when it comes to family is part of what makes siblings’ stories so interesting. You can’t choose who’s older or smarter or prettier because, however the cards fall, the differences are purely by chance.
This makes for some of the purest love and deepest resentment because it is so close to yourself yet out of your control.
Siblings act as natural foils to each other in stories because their differences are highlighted by their shared origin. Whether they are your best friend or arch nemesis, siblings make great characters by showing both how people are different and what they share simultaneously. So, if you love your sibling or hate them, here are ten sibling movies that really feature these intimate and involuntary relationships whether the bond is loving, tragic, or disturbed.
What keeps a story about an intergalactic alien manhunt down to earth? Hula dances and two sisters’ love. Even an extraterrestrial designed to cause destruction can empathize.
Disney was taking risks in Lilo and Stitch (2002). Not just by taking a turn toward science fiction and away from the fantasy kingdoms we know and love, but by steering away from fairy tale romance to the realistic struggles of two orphaned sisters. Romantic love isn’t the core struggle but rather the refrain of keeping your “Ohana” together while things fall apart. Lilo and Nani fuss and fight, but their relationship is characterized by their effort to stay together while Nani faces unemployment as a single sibling guardian.
Their love and struggle fill the screen as Nani faces the real possibility of losing Lilo. Instead of breaking the news outright, she holds her sister and spends their last night together under the stars and singing “Aloha Oe” which translates to “farewell to thee.” This song is famously associated with Hawaii and was written by the last Queen of Hawaii, Liliuokalani, as a heartfelt farewell. The lyrics sing a message to Lilo, whom Nani expects to lose custody of in the morning:
“One fond embrace / I leave / Until we meet again.
Sweet memories come back to me / Bringing fresh remembrances of the past.
Dearest one, yes, you are mine own / From you, true love shall never depart.”
This touching moment really captures the depth of love these two have for each other.
9 Slumdog Millionaire
This 2008 film racked up at the Oscars with a cast of breakout actors and unknowns, making you laugh, cry, and really try to remember the name of the third musketeer. This story spans a decade and many walks of life, but love and brotherhood are the emotional core of the story.
This epic follows the story of two impoverished brothers growing up in the slums of Mumbai. After they are orphaned at a young age, their bond helps them survive and intensifies their true natures. Salim is willing to do anything to survive, which hardens him. At the same time, Jamal is driven by love, first for his brother and then for their third musketeer Latika. Jamal’s unending belief in this love proves victorious over even Salim’s hard heart, who ultimately shows his true love for his brother by sacrificing everything for Jamal to be happy.
There is no way to avoid this 2021 film making the list unless I just hadn’t seen it. This is a story about a family of two generations of siblings dealing with relatable issues of cracking under family expectation and the stress of living with it. This is a family movie, not just because it is fun for all ages but because family pressure is the villain, and the answers are hugs.
Mirabel and Bruno are the outcast siblings in their respective stories, and they team up to save the magic by understanding what it is in their family that is weakening it. The solution they find in the vision? Mirabel needs to hug and make nice with her sister Isabella who has been forced to be a pretty picture her entire life. Mirabel hates her out of jealousy because her personal imperfection is mirrored by her sister’s projection of infallibility.
Their reconciliation is in realizing that Isabella is struggling just as much under the expectation to be perfect even though she doesn’t even want to be, to the point of marrying someone she doesn’t love. Ultimately, they are able to rebuild their family and their magic without this fatal flaw because of Mirabel’s heroic effort, listening to her sisters and understanding how they feel.
7 Fiddler on the Roof
Based on a book titled Tevye’s Daughters and the Broadway play that followed, this 1971 musical film examines three sisters on the precipice of adulthood in a traditional Jewish community in Imperial Russia. To them, that means marriage and how they each decide to carry their tradition and values forward instead of letting it hold them back. These sisters all understand each other’s longing and excitement for love, and each makes a path for the other to follow their dreams.
Tevye acts as a narrator in a story that is really about his daughters and their community as it changes through the turmoil that threatens their way of life. The three sisters decide to change their fates as daughters of a poor milkman. One after another, they reject their custom of arranged marriages in pursuit of romantic partners who align with their personal values more than the customs of the community. We see the sisters embolden each other as one girl’s bravery pours into the next until they all have taken their stand.
Based on the story of two real-life doctors, Cyril and Stewart Marcus, Jeremy Irons stars opposite himself in the role of identical twins Beverly and Elliot. What starts with sinister tricks like sharing women they seduce at their gynecology practice ends in horror and tragedy as their self-destructive descent into drug addiction spirals out of control on-screen. These two codependent characters drag each other down until neither can escape.
Director David Cronenberg, master of body horror, demonstrates what they are doing to themselves with addiction by what they are doing to each other. I will warn you—it is an eerie and uneasy watch.
Rooting for the main characters in this 1988 film is rooting against them because they must be stopped as they hurt other people, themselves, and each other with their dark tendencies. This story is by far the darkest on the list. However, I think it is also the only true story demonstrating the complex nature of the bond between siblings. Many believed this film was snubbed by the Oscars that year, and when Irons went on to get his Best Actor for Reversal of Fortune, he thanked Cronenberg for making it possible.
Onward (2020) is an animated adventure that stars Chris Pratt and Tom Holland as Ian and Barley Lightfoot. They are two brothers bonding over the death of their father through the magic Barley learned from him when he was young and that Ian inherited the ability to actually practice. They embark on a quest to complete the spell and bring their father, who died before Ian could get to know him, back for the rest of the day.
Through this adventure, they grow to appreciate each other’s strengths and love. By the end of their journey, Ian realizes he doesn’t even need to meet his father. He now knows that because his brother has stood in for him so much that there is nothing in his dreams for his father that Barley has not already done for him. The strength of their brotherhood has supported them, and their shared desire for the magic from their father has created its own magic. This movie was inspired by director Dan Scanlon’s relationship with his brother and their connection to their father, who passed when he was an infant.
4 Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
This iconic thriller is about the toxic relationship between two aging stars. The 1962 film pits the real-life rival screen queens Bette Davis and Joan Crawford against each other in a movie that sears with resentment and jealousy—the way that only sisters have for each other.
Joan Crawford plays Blanche, an aging Hollywood actress in the care of her sister Baby Jane. The latter had been famous first but fizzled much quicker. After Blanche is injured in an accident, Baby Jane, now haggard and cruel, traps and abuses her sister while trying to swindle her fortune. Baby Jane is trying to make a comeback with a vaudeville act she is 50 years too old for. This movie has all the madness, delusion, and scintillating acting from Sunset Boulevard but given a sister to highlight their heightening psychological stress and desperation. This truly iconic film is said to have kicked off a whole subgenre of horror called psycho biddy or “hagsploitation.”
Frozen (2013) won many hearts with its strong feminist themes and going against the grain of some earlier Disney tropes like love at first sight and the necessity of a romantic lead. In Frozen, the act of true love is not from a handsome Prince but from the love these sisters have for each other.
Anna and Elsa are princesses in the land of Arendelle. Though they were once very dear friends, their father’s suppression of Elsa drives a wedge between their relationship. This results in Elsa shutting herself off from Anna and eventually the whole country. The conflict of this story stems from bringing them back together and restoring things to how they were. And that is exactly what their love for each other accomplishes. It turns out that love is an open door (between sisters who want to build a snowman).
2 The Color Purple
This story features a young Whoppi Goldberg in a breakout role as Celie, one of two sisters fated to a difficult life after their mother dies. They are left with nothing but the love between sisters and God to care for them when no one but each other bothers. This heartbreaking story of these African American women in the rural south deals with every kind of abuse and finding love for themselves and each other. If the two of them playing patty cake doesn’t bring tears to your eyes by the end of the movie, you need to get your heart examined.
Growing up, Celie does her best to shelter her young, intelligent, and beautiful sister from the abuse that she has received, but this changes when Celie is married off. Nettie teaches Celie to read so that they can be together in letters even if they can’t be together in person. They both keep their faith through letters, Nettie to Celie for their entire adult life even though Celie can never write back. And Celie to God, although he never responds until miraculously, their prayers are answered. These sisters show us and each other how to fight, survive, and keep faith alive no matter what your outside circumstances are.
1 Grave of the Fireflies
This entry is as emotionally devastating as it is beautifully crafted. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is a Studio Ghibli movie set in WWII Japan and its immediate aftermath. Don’t let its gorgeous animation fool you; this movie is not for children (unless you would like your children to understand death and the horrors of war).
Seita is a teenage boy who takes up the responsibility of looking after his little sister Setsuko after their home is firebombed. The story follows them on their journey of survival and growing desperation as they find themselves running out of options. Seita’s love for Setsuko will tear your heart open as he does his very best to support her and himself with nothing. We may find it strange in the West to have such a heavy-themed movie produced as an animated film. However, the author of Grave of the Fireflies could not imagine it being brought to the screen in any other way.