Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films often focus on the beauty of unexpected or unconventional families, and his latest, Shoplifters (which won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), starts out as another small-scale family story, before eventually revealing just how far from typical the central family really is. From the beginning, it’s clear that Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) operate outside the law to support their family; as the title implies, they regularly steal their basic daily supplies from stores, enlisting their young son Shota (Kairi Jō) to help. They’re also living illegally, along with Nobuyo’s sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), in the home of the sisters’ grandmother Hatsue (late Japanese acting legend Kirin Kiki, in her final role), which Hatsue is meant to be occupying alone.
There’s more going on with the complicated (and sometimes deliberately undefined) relationships among the family members, which are further challenged by the arrival of Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a young girl Osamu and Nobuyo sort of informally adopt, after spotting her hiding on the balcony of her abusive parents’ apartment. Another way to describe the situation would be to say that the family kidnaps Yuri, even though she seems happy to stay with them, and they love her and embrace her as one of their own (after some initial reluctance from Shota toward accepting her as his sister).
Despite the potential volatility of their living situation, the family persists in peaceful harmony for much of the movie, and as always Kore-eda finds beauty and grace in small moments of everyday life, whether that’s taking a bath or listening to a fireworks show that can be heard but not seen. The Shibatas don’t have much (and what little they do have, they often have to steal), and their home is cramped and crowded and dingy. But they have deep wells of affection for each other, even if they’re sometimes awkward about expressing it. While Osamu and Nobuyo may enlist their children’s help in stealing from stores, they’re still protective and concerned parents, whose misguided actions are motivated by altruism and compassion.
When the story eventually takes a turn for sensational, Kore-eda keeps the action low-key, emphasizing the emotional responses of the family members rather than the external forces that close in around them. The performances are lovely and understated all around, especially from Ando, who gradually reveals Nobuyo’s heartbreaking background that drives her to keep the family together. The two child actors are also fantastic, conveying so much internal struggle and hope with relatively minimal dialogue. This is not a movie that coasts on the appeal of cute kids being cute.
It does get a little bogged down in major plot reveals in the third act, and Kore-eda is better at the quiet family interactions than he is at building twists and turns. But even as the characters face problems of escalating severity, their reactions remain subdued and genuine, grounded in their connection to each other and the family unit they’re so fiercely dedicated to preserving.