AFI Film Festival (2018): No genre touches all my emotions quite like the “unconventional family that adopts a child” narrative. While squarely falling into that classification, “Shoplifters,” the latest film from Hirokazu Kore-eda, proves itself to be more adventurous. The notion of family gets redefined by this group of people, all relying on each other for survival and support. The film feels like a nice, warm hug. Its energy and empathy are infectious. Kore-eda manages to tell both a compelling narrative and a slice of life human story all in one. It’s Palme d’Or win at Cannes was no fluke. “Shoplifters” is a tale to behold.
We open on a typical day in the supermarket between Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) and his son Shota Shibata (Kairi Jo). The two display a whole separate language of looks, motions, and directions to shoplift their basic provisions. On their way back home with their spoils, they find a young child, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), nearly starving. They bring her back to their home, which consists of a motley collection of grifters all supported by Osamu’s Grandma’s pension (Kirin Kiki). As the signs of abuse in Yuri’s former life crop up, the strapped Shibata family unit decides to fully adopt Yuri as their own. This becomes a greater task than anticipated once they learn that Yuri has been reported missing and her abusive former family is looking for her.
Every member of the family gives distinct, incredible performances. They are able to create unique, special bonds between each other in ways that ring incredibly true. One feels the decades of life and hardship that has bonded everyone together. Franky rightfully finds a playfulness to Osamu. In some ways, he resembles a more loving and caring Fagin from “Oliver,” taking glee at teaching the kids the art of survival. He’s anchored well by Sakura Ando as Nobuyo, his beloved, whose part-time job keeps the unit somewhat at bay. Ando serves as the backbone of the family. Her ability to put others ahead of herself provides “Shoplifters” with its most dramatic and affecting moments. Mayu Matsuoka rounds out the supportive, maternal figures as Aki Shibata. Her character manages to bring dignity and warmth, even during her scenes working in a peep show den.
Child performances are sometimes difficult to evaluate. However, Jo and Sasaki excel because they always feel authentic. Shota and Yuri may be shoplifting for their lives, but they never feel too old or weathered for their age. Recalling Brooklynn Prince’s performance in “The Florida Project” last year, both kids are able to illustrate what this world looks like from the eyes of a kid. Their innocence gels with their world rather than bumps up against it.
Writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda conveys such love and affection for this ragtag group of characters. The script explores the concept of family in rich, interesting ways. He never looks at the poverty of the characters as a detraction from their ability to be the right family unit for Yuri. Lesser films may have fetishized their squalor or heightened it for a dramatic attempt. Kore-eda stays far away from turning this into “poverty porn”. In fact, the act of shoplifting and the other acts of grifting to get by are all portrayed with a sense of fondness. Under his direction, the movie takes on a wistful tone. It functions almost like a lullaby. No matter how rich or how poor, the only thing a family needs is love to sustain itself. There’s something so radical about the heartwarming core of the film.
The film also achieves a really tricky balance. So much of the film revels in the day to day life of these people. Shota and Yuri decide they want to fish, so we follow them shoplifting fishing rods. While the kids are out, we see what a day looks like between Osamu and Nobuyo once they are able to have some time alone. These and many other moments don’t move forward the narrative in many ways. They exist to further build the world of these characters. This year is filled with movies that revel in loving memory or seeking to capture the beauty in every day (looking at you, “Roma”). However, “Shoplifters” manages to pull off this feat while never sacrificing the compelling narrative in the center. These people are struggling to survive and provide Yuri with a home.