Imagine you’re on your way home from the store on the coldest winter night of the year, and you see the smallest, scrawniest little girl on her back porch, shut out from the warmth inside. She is hungry, dirty, and bruised. You hear angry shouts from the house. And this isn’t the first time you’ve observed her in such a state. What would you do? Could you walk away?
One man, Osamu (Lily Franky, After the Storm) couldn’t. Instead, he scoops up the shivering Yuri (Miyu Sasaki, Samurai Gourmet) and introduces her to the family back home, who all have a lot to say about it.
(And yeah, I know what you’re thinking. They didn’t have to just take Yuri – they could have called the cops and reported her condition. But as many people around the world can attest, sometimes calling the cops is the least safe thing you could possibly do – and it turns out this family has many secrets to hide.)
The movie is Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku), and Osamu’s family subsidizes their poverty by, you guessed it, shoplifting. But don’t let assumptions get the better of you. They may steal, but they don’t mooch. Osamu works in construction, his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Andô, 100 Yen Love) at the laundry, her little sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka, Tremble All You Want)) as a sex worker, and Grandma (Kirin Kiki, After the Storm) by watching over the house and withdrawing her small pension every month. When Osamu and their young son Shota (Jyo Kairi, Erased) go shoplifting, that helps for shampoo and snacks but it’s Grandma’s pension that keeps them alive.
It’s hard to say whether the directing, the acting, or the script itself is the most moving element of Shoplifters. Seeing that it won the coveted Palm d’Or at Cannes this year, I feel safe in saying that each of those elements meets the gold standard.
The script provides the foundation on which everything is built, allowing us just enough information to follow along, but keeping us guessing as to what lies behind each of these fascinating characters. The dialogue is so real; it made me feel like I was eavesdropping on a flesh-and-blood family (like when Aki has to explain to Grandma what “sideboob” means, or when Shota struggles to express his jealousy of Yuri by explaining to Osamu that shoplifting is “more fun with just us guys”).
Likewise, the performances are heart-wrenching and powerful, from the young children to the veteran Kiki, but most especially Andô as the mother of the bunch. This family is complicated, to say the least, and she more so than any of them, but the love and fierce maternal protection which emanates from her is the emotional center of the whole movie. I’ll never forget how tears sprung to my eyes when Nobuyo takes the tiny Yuri into her arms after the family realizes how much physical and psychological trauma the child has been through at the hands of her biological family. “If you really love someone,” she explains, gently enfolding Yuri and swaying, “This is what you do.”
And to tie this strong script and memorable performances together is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s (After the Storm) piercing, insightful direction. The shots are stunning, the focus is always clear, and the impact is deep and rattling.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Shoplifters going in, outside of the awards it had already won. Turns out it’s become one of my faves of the year – one that made me miss my family and think fondly of the next time I’ll get to laugh and eat with them. I think it resonated so deeply because it was just such a stirring reminder that we all have different scars, that life is messy, that joy is fleeting, and that family is never easy or simple. Despite the hiding, the brokenness, and the stealing, this family is a small snapshot of joy, and one that shines a sorely needed light.