By Alex Gehrlein
I know that no matter what I say, this review will probably not attract very many people to go out and see this movie. That’s fine. A bit disappointing, but still fine. There is not much of a market in the US for a slow burn, medium budget, foreign language, family drama with no big name stars, and no real press momentum. Yes, it won the Palme d’Or. Yes, it’s been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. People just don’t go out of their way to see this kind of movie, and that’s each individual’s choice.
Set in the worldwide economic depression of 2008, Shoplifters follows a “makeshift” family in the most literal sense of the term. None of these characters are related in the traditional mother-father daughter-son dynamic, but are instead bound by a common affection for each other. This affection leads them to take in a young girl, Juri, alone and cold on the back porch of a house filled with the sounds of her fighting parents.
“It looks like we kidnapped her,” Aki says. The father, Shota, reasons that it’s not kidnapping if they aren’t making any demands.
The film carries on from here with a slow, deliberate pace. Each member of the family has their own little quirks, and we see them going about their day to day jobs of factory work, webcam “performance,” and as the title would suggest, shoplifting. Hirokazu Kore-eda approaches all of this with a light touch, finding heartwarming comedy in the minute details of their struggles to get by. Things inevitably go wrong, and the family structure is challenged. I won’t say any more, but suffice it to say that the film sneaks up on you to pull at your heartstrings in the last act.
All along, the film questions the nature of our family dynamics, and asks us if it is really better to choose our own family? This group of outcasts and small time criminals love their newly kidnapped daughter more than her original parents ever did. Juri’s family doesn’t even bother to report her disappearance. They bring her in to their home, feed her, clothe her, and give her the affection we tend to associate with a happy home.
Kore-eda’s film finds a happy midpoint of emotions somewhere between joy, sadness and melancholy. Can society’s outcasts be better influences than the more fortunate members? Can we forgive a criminal who acts out of need? Is the family a more malleable structure than we are lead to believe? Kore-eda doesn’t give us the answers, but prompts us to think for ourselves. That might be what I like most about the film: it leaves room for you to answer its biggest questions.