Review: ‘Shoplifters’ Questions What It Means to Be a Family

Each year it seems that one foreign film captures the eye of the American public. This year, it comes in the form of Roma. Last year, A Fantastic Woman. The year before that The Salesman, whose director infamously refused to accept his academy award in protest of President Trump’s travel ban.  However, despite the critical success of these films, it seems that each year, a group of unique and interesting foreign films get overlooked by the ‘Romas’ of their respective year. One film that I hope doesn’t succumb to this fate is Shoplifters.

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (Like Father, Like Son) and winner of the Palm d’Or at Cannes, Shoplifters follows the life of Osama (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo Shibata (Sakura Ando), two parents who live with their sibling Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), their son Shota (Kairi Jō), and their grandmother Hatsue. This seemingly normal family is barely able to maintain any sense of normalcy as they survive on the grandmother’s pension, low-paying jobs, and as the title of the film suggests, shoplifting. One day, after a shoplifting escapade, Osama and Shota run into a little girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) sitting alone and scarred in the cold. Although he can barely feed his own family, Osama cannot help but take the girl in, and even though, as one of the characters mentions “it looks like we kidnapped her,” the love that the family develops for Yuri persuades Osama and Nobuyo to keep and raise her.

Despite this morally questionable act, it brings up the question: what constitutes a family? Is the only way one can be a mother or father is through consummation and childbirth? As one character in the film suggests, yes, but is it? Shoplifters tries to delicately answer this question through a compassionate and humanistic exploration of this complicated family. On the outside, Osama and Nobuyo’s family is normal. They live together, steal for each other, and treat each other with the love that a typical family would. However, each person’s connection to one another is hazy at best, but Kore-eda does not linger on this concept for too long. Instead of focusing on their ambiguous connections to one another, Shoplifters emphasizes how crucial the loving familial connection within this messy “family” is for every person involved.

The importance of this familial connection is easily felt due to the intimacy that Kore-eda creates. Throughout Shoplifters, it feels as if we were given a peek into someone’s everyday life. Nothing seems forced. Using a grainy 35 mm camera, Shoplifters is a raw and intimate look into this family’s life rather than an intrusion. Plot mechanics usually found within melodramatic dramas, like kidnapping and shoplifting, are treated with simplicity and a sense of naturalism.  Each character is given room to breathe and become their own as Kore-eda slowly and gently guides his actors through their developmental arcs, allowing each actor to grow into their character and bare their souls to the screen and making each moment feel more humanistic, emotional, and real. To put it simply, nothing feels out of place.

Thus, it is a true accomplishment that Shoplifters has us empathizing with these morally questionable characters without adding exaggerated, artificial drama. How are we supposed to root for Osama and Nobuyo, people who proactively teach their children to shoplift and lie? How are we supposed to root for Hatsue, who regularly guilt trips her estranged stepchildren into giving her money? It is a delicate line that Kore-eda toes but he is able to balance it out through the intimate look of this family along with how they fit into society as a whole. Kore-eda follows each character separately when each is out of the house, documenting how each character interacts with the world around them. Here we are given the bigger picture of why they behave the way they do. Society has already written them out of their idyllic, capitalist narrative, painting them as lazy nobodies, but as long as they have each other, each member of this “family” is given a true connection in which they can hold onto, whether it be mom, dad, son, or sister.

Shoplifters gives us a vignette into the lives of people we have so commonly dismissed. It is an emotional human story that asks us to question ourselves, our convictions, and our preconceived definitions of the familial unit. Shoplifters does not glorify poverty nor does it try to preach about money being the key to happiness. Instead, it offers a gentle nudge to an answer in the hopes of helping us better understand familial love and the human connection.

Rating: 4.5/5