Shoplifters Movie Review: A Potent Mix of Pragmatism and Empathy

Shoplifters is a well-acted, bittersweet ode to the impoverished.
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One thing that’s so amazing about Shoplifters is that it succeeds in areas where it could’ve easily gone wrong. It’s an insightful look at a family living in poverty without becoming preachy and demonstrates people with misguided yet good intentions without acting judgmental. Director/writer Hirokazu Kore-eda handles the film with a pragmatic yet empathetic eye and as a result, crafts together one of the year’s best movies that clutches the heartstrings by the time the credits roll.

The story follows Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), a couple that barely makes ends meet since they work low-paying jobs and rely heavily on the pension of the grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki). They also resort to shoplifting to cope with their impoverished living conditions. But while on a shoplifting run, Osamu and his son Shota (Kairi Jyo) find a homeless girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) and take her into their household once they notice signs of her being abused. But her presence leads to complications once her birth parents file a missing-person report.

Even when Yuri first stays with the Shibata clan, some ethical questions begin to be raised. While these people are giving a young girl a stable household, is it still right to steal a child from her family? Although home is where the heart is, does the same logic apply to family? As they say, you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family. That being said, if the family that gave you life isn’t giving you proper guidance, does that make them a true family?

It’s made clear that the Shibatas aren’t the most wholesome clan and are not the most privileged. However, they still raise a neglected child in the best ways that they know how. The stable household they raise Yuri in makes the film seem hopeful and optimistic in the film’s first half before things slowly turn on a dime towards the end once particular secrets begin to unfold. At that point, the mood goes from optimistic to bittersweet. Kore-eda seamlessly lets that transition take place by initially portraying the family as earthly and carefree before their decision to raise Yuri catches up with them.

Of course, credit should also go to the acting ensemble for creating a complex family portrait. As the father and mother of the family, Lily Franky and Sakura Ando are completely in sync with the film's shift from its open hearted spirit to its more pragmatic finish and demonstrate that transition by presenting themselves with a youthful mentality used to mask themselves from the somber resolution that may befall them; the late Kirin Kiki is a quiet force of nature as the grandmother Hatsue, demonstrating her stance as the head of the family even from a distance; and lastly, Kairi Jyo emerges the acting MVP as Shota, the son who slowly learns the errors of his parents’ ways.

The actors act as the perfect vessel for the director’s visionary ode to the underprivileged. Shoplifters is both gratifying and heart rending, portraying a family trying to make the most of their situation while questioning what it truly means to be a family. It may be a bit too meditative for some but its deep message still makes it quite effective.

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