The family that steals together does its best to stay together in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters — a deeply affecting, deceptively low-key drama that well deserves the prestigious Palme d’Or it took home from this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
As the movie opens, a man (Lily Franky) and a young boy (Kairi Jyo) enact their smoothly choreographed father-son routine in a grocery store, a sort of petty-larceny ballet they’ve clearly done many times before.
While the boy, Shota, distracts a clerk, the middle-aged Osamu slips stolen goods into his bag; then they swap roles, making off with enough to feed all the bodies crammed into their messy makeshift lean-to of a home: Osamu’s sardonic wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), bright-eyed older daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and the elfin woman they all call Grandma (Kirin Kiki).
On the way back, though, the pair find a little girl called Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) shivering in an alleyway, alone and hungry, with too many marks and scars on her arms. Though they hardly need another mouth to feed they agree to take her in, and eventually begin to treat her like one of their own, even renaming her Lin.
Tiny Lin aside, they all make at least intermittent stabs at employment: Osamu works freelance construction; Nobuyo is trying to hold on to her thankless job as a clerk; Aki dresses like a schoolgirl and listlessly spreads her legs for anonymous men behind glass partitions; even wily Grandma occasionally extracts a cash allowance from the wealthy son of her late husband’s second marriage. And Lin soon turns out to be handy enough in the art of grifting, once they teach her the basics.
Mostly, though, they just seem to hang out — talking and teasing, tumbling over each other like puppies in their small living space, slurping endless slippery bowls of noodles. There are a few episodic moments that stand out: a day trip to the beach, the loss of Lin’s first tooth, a fireworks display they watch together in wonder from the backyard.
It’s all beautifully done, if seemingly aimless; for most of its two-hour runtime, the joy of the movie lies mostly in watching these fine actors build their beautifully flawed and lived-in characters. There isn’t a single weak link in the cast, though the sheer, ridiculous adorability of the two kids almost seems like an unfair advantage.
But Kore-eda is working up to something else, steering the story he’s built so carefully toward an utterly unexpected detour. As much of what we think we know unravels, the film becomes not just an enjoyable, intermittently poignant portrait of imperfect people but a profound meditation on the meaning of family. Suddenly, Shoplifting is the kind of sneaky beauty that makes you glad for the patience it’s asked of you, and freshly thankful for the eye-opening gifts of international cinema. A–
After playing various festivals, including AFI Fest in Los Angeles on Sunday and Tuesday, Shoplifters will have its wider American release Nov. 23.
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