Shoplifters (2018)

In 2004, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda directed a heart-wrenching family drama about an apartment full of abandoned, impoverished children who spend countless months fending for themselves outside parental and governmental supervision. I have not seen enough of Kore-eda’s catalog to say whether Nobody Knows is a text that typifies his aesthetic or storytelling preoccupations as an auteur, but it’s a work that certainly echoes loudly in his latest film. Winner of last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes and nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Picture at the Oscars, Shoplifters is a much higher profile picture than Nobody Knowns. Yet it often plays like a slickly produced (read: better funded) revision of that earlier work. Shoplifters is a little less patient, a little more formalist, and a lot more blatant in its themes about the unconventional shapes families form in poverty & crisis, but the overall effect is just as tenderly devastating here as it was in Nobody Knows. I think I even slightly preferred the less documentarian approach here, if not only because Nobody Knows is so punishingly somber while this one is more open to notes of sweetness & sentimentality even if both films share in the same grim themes. Either way, I can’t help but think of the two films as complimentary companions, which makes me suspect a wider knowledge of Kore-eda’s catalog at large could only improve my appreciation for either.

The most immediately noticeable difference between Nobody Knows & Shoplifters is that the latter film is vastly more expansive. This is literally true in terms of cast & setting, as almost all of Nobody Knows is suffocatingly confined to a single apartment populated by a small cast of ragged children, afraid of being found out by the outside world. Shoplifters, by contrast, features a makeshift-family of all ages who have to leave their own cramped living space to earn money & food to sustain the collective household through whatever meager means they can manage: shoplifting (duh), construction jobs, factory shifts, sex work, emotional grifts, etc. This opens the cast & locations to a much wider view of poverty-line Tokyo, and also necessitates a more tightly scripted storytelling approach (Nobody Knows feels as if it were patiently constructed out of meticulously edited children’s improv). Shoplifters’s expansion of the previous film’s tones & methods also extends to its camera work & emotional effect. No longer constrained to capturing spontaneous moments in a confined apartment, the camera is free to move in sweeping, energizing maneuvers that match the thrill of the characters’ high-risk/low-reward “shopping” trips. Those characters were also allowed to experience the full range of loving, familial emotions before the goings get toughest, rather than lowly rotting in steady decline.

In addition to Shoplifters’s slicker production aesthetic & expansive emotional palette, it’s a film that also finds Kore-eda willing to blatantly explain his themes in-dialogue. Throughout the film, characters in its makeshift family of near-homeless pariahs discuss in plain language that the familial bonds we choose are much stronger than the ones we’re born into. It’s not enough to demonstrate that community & solidary are the only saving graces for these victims of capitalism; they also have to reinforce the legitimacy of their chosen bonds by insistently using the terms “mother,” “father,” “sister,” “brother,” and “grandma” as if they were a traditional, blood-related family unit rather than a loose collection of societal castaways with no recourse but each other. As clearly stated & straightforward as the themes of unconventional chosen families can be, however, there’s still plenty of room for nuance & subtlety in individual characters’ personalities & histories. The world has been tough on these discarded souls, weighing them down with domestic abuse, economic exploitation, and pure deep-in-the-gut hunger. It’s a burden that’s made them understandably cutthroat & cynical, not the usual saintly saps you’d expect in this kind of drama. The familial bonds they form in crisis are heartfelt & sentimental, but the characters remain defensive, sardonic street toughs as individuals, which benefits the movie greatly as a character study and opens it to a more intricate, dense portrait of modern poverty than what the plainly-explained themes in the dialogue might suggest.

Its likely insulting to both Shoplifters & Nobody Knows as individual works that I cannot discuss their merits without comparing & contrasting them against each other. I still find the exercise unavoidable, as it clearly illustrates a growth in craft & sentiment from Kore-eda while also establishing a baseline for his political & emotional preoccupations as an auteur. Even though they’re not connected as sequels and the makeshift families they profile take remarkably different shapes, they still sit with me as sister films, bonding in unconventional ways. It’s a bond that strengthens each film as isolated works, as it puts both of their accomplishments in sharper relief, which only makes me want to see more films in the larger Kore-eda family.

-Brandon Ledet

Room (2015)

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threehalfstar

There’s been a lot of recent buzz about the Incredible, Show-stealing, Oscar-worthy performance Brie Larson provides in the indie drama Room that is feel does the movie (and the actor) a disservice. I went into Room with sky-high expectations from early word of its soaring virtues, so I was a little let down when I discovered it’s actually a somewhat muted small cast drama, grim in nature, but rarely brutal or affecting enough to leave a significant, lingering impression. Room is a pretty great film, for sure, but its early reputation bills it as so Big & Important that it was more or less doomed to fall short of the mark no matter what. I enjoyed Brie Larson’s wounded-animal performance in the film a great deal, but I find myself a little dubious about the idea that she stole the show. In my mind Room‘s most valuable player is not Larson at all, but instead a young boy named Jacob Tremblay.

In the film, Larson plays a young mother who’s been held captive as a sex slave in a ten-by-ten foot garden shed in a suburban backyard for seven years & counting. Her five year old son, Jack, has never known life outside their single-room home. The movie commands a very direct mode of storytelling that avoids flashbacks or easy answers, gradually filling in the audience on the circumstances of the pair’s captivity without providing much release from the understandably oppressive tone. As you can guess based on the premise, the mother & son protagonists experience levels of boredom & frustration that lead to destructive tantrums far beyond what would typically be described as cabin fever. I will say, though, that although it isn’t quite as light-hearted as narratively similar recent examples of false imprisonment media like Everly or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Room is not all broken spirits & grim yearnings. The film can at times be quite imaginative & uplifting, thanks to young Jack’s warped sense of reality & Jacob Tremblay’s wonderful performance.

Room‘s strongest asset is how it adopts a child POV the way films like The Adventures of Baron Mucnchausen, The Fall, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have in the past. Because Jack has only known life inside Room (which he refers to as a proper noun, like a god or a planet), he has a fascinatingly unique/warped perception of how life works & how the universe is structured. For him, Room is all there is, excepting “outer space” (the outdoors), “the TV planets” (which he believes aren’t real), and Heaven. Jack’s mother is often frustrated with his delusions, like when he asks, “Do we go into TV for dreaming?” but she also uses them to protect her son from the harshness of their severely limited reality. There’s a monumental dramatic shift halfway into Room that undercuts what makes the film special (something I suggest you avoid spoiling for yourself by watching the trailer), but much of the film can be downright uplifting whenever the story is told through Jack’s eyes. Of course, his perspective can also be a downer at times, like the pathetic way he addresses inanimate objects as if they were people (“Good morning, lamp.” “Good morning, TV.” “Good morning, sink.”), but because he’s a five year old boy he also brings levity to the situation with self-satisfying humor about things like poo & farts.

As I said earlier, Room is a pretty great movie. It occasionally reaches some impressive cinematic heights in moments of heart-pounding suspense or in the odd way it makes you appreciate abstract concepts like freedom & external spaces. However, I do feel that a lot of what makes the film special burns out a bit too early in its runtime, especially when it shifts perspectives from Jack’s to his mother’s. Brie Larson was undoubtedly understated & nuanced in her role as a captive mother here, which is admirable, but her character’s emotional crisis often felt like a distraction from what really makes the movie a distinct work in the first place: Jack. Try to temper your own trumped up anticipation for the film & you might find yourself bowled over in a way that I ruined for myself, especially if you can manage to shift your attention from Brie Larson’s lauded performance to that of Jacob Tremblay. That’s where the real magic resides.

-Brandon Ledet