In Shoplifters, family ties are strengthened through petty theft. The opening scene shows a father and son at work, skulking about a grocery store and looking for an opportune moment to pilfer some goods. They’re not doing it for fun, exactly; though Dad has a construction job and Mom works at a laundry, it’s implied that they need that five-finger discount: “I forgot the shampoo,” the kid says after they leave, suggesting they’re taking only necessities. Still, they treat themselves to some street food on the way home to go with their stolen noodles.
But croquettes aren’t the only thing they pick up. As they’re nearing home and remarking on how cold it is, Osamu (Lily Franky) and Shota (Jyo Kairi) notice a little girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), alone on a balcony. They’ve seen her out there before. This time, Osamu decides to bring her with them so she can have a hot meal. Home turns out to be a shack with three other adults: Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Andô); her younger sister, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka); and “Grandma” (Kirin Kiki). Their mealtimes are warm even though they’re on top of each other and sleep on the floor. It’s clear they are a happy family. And when Osamu and Nobuyo take Yuri back to where he found her—despite the scars on her arms—and overhear her mother fighting with someone about how she never wanted to have her, they decide that their family has room for one more.
Writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s follow-up to 2016’s masterful After the Storm won the Palme d’Or and continues a theme he explored in 2013’s Like Father, Like Son: Which is more important, nature or nurture? Yuri is quickly made a part of things as Osamu and Shota teach her how to steal and Nobuyo lavishes her with motherly attention. When Shota eventually resents the girl’s presence and argues to Osamu that she gets in the way, he tells the boy point-blank, “Yuri is your sister.” They’ll have another conversation about it, but the statement is unshakeable. As the film goes on, revelations are made that indicate there’s more to the clan than you initially think; indeed, Yuri belongs there as much as anybody.
Shoplifters is a bit slow to start, made up of moments that may be exquisitely rendered but are nonetheless small. Not all of the family members pull their own weight narratively, either: While Grandma joins Osamu, Nobuyo, Shota, and Yuri in scamming her way through life, Aki doesn’t really fit in. Not only does she not contribute financially to the household, but her small storyline—she works in a sex shop—adds nothing to the bigger picture. In fact, one scene in which she gets closer to a depressed customer is a distraction that comes across as bizarre because the matter is never revisited. It’s unclear what we’re supposed to get out of either character besides a few amusing lines such as, “She went to shake her breasts.”
Though the film isn’t a breezy build, spending this low-key time with the family results in a devastating final chapter in which they’re faced with a reckoning. The joy with which they live their day-to-day lives has been more important than their criminal activity, but it’s no spoiler to say they can’t get away scot-free forever. That Kore-eda makes these people not only empathetic but lovable is a sizable achievement, though one that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s seen his earlier work. His characters may never be perfect, but his films often come close.
Shoplifters opens Friday at the Avalon Theatre.