Reel Dad: Shoplifters offers a sly and resonant tale of thievery

(Arts and Leisure welcomes back Jonathan Schumann this week. The son of Reel Dad Mark Schumann, Jonathan started writing about film for Arts and Leisure in 1999 as part of the original “Take Two” duo with his dad. Jonathan now works in market research in New York City. And he still loves movies.)

The Japanese film Shoplifters, from director Hirokazu Kore-eda, comes steeped with expectation. Earlier this year it won the coveted Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival and emerged a clear audience and critical hit. It later played the New York Film Festival (where it won a similar response) and now finally arrives in theaters. I’m glad to report that the film meets these hefty expectations.

This is a sly and resonant tale about a makeshift family of thieves living at the poverty line. At the outset, Kore-eda asks the audience to identify with these people despite their crimes. Yes, they may pilfer little things — a bowl of ramen here, a trinket from a convenience store there, a tie pin left in a someone’s coat pocket from some other place — but they’re entirely humanized and their bond as a family unit seems true and genuine. Their existence grows a bit more complicated when they take in a neglected young girl from the street and make her part of their tribe. As we begin to see their odd rituals through the eyes of this young innocent, their actions begin to seem less harmless and more complex.

The film seems perfectly content in expressing the quotidian moments of this rag tag group for much of its running time. Kore’eda mines joy, despair, humor and pathos in the small moments of everyday. That is, until the third act, when the narrative turns to reveal what it’s really about, and who these characters really are. So often a filmmaker will play a late-breaking reveal like this for thrills or sensationalism, but the opposite is true here. When the truth comes out (and, yes, I’m being intentionally vague), it only serves to strengthen what Kore-eda interrogates, and further bring ambiguity to this morality tale. Kore’eda asks us not only to assess the morality of crime within the context of extreme poverty and need, but also to reconsider what constitutes family.

The overall result is quite harrowing and difficult to shake. There are no easy answers to the questions Kore’eda asks us to consider. That said, the film is in no way heavy-handed or didactic in what it presents, rather it’s subtle and quite human (a Hollywood remake would surely be all schmaltz and bombast). Kore-eda’s overall style walks a line between naturalism given the raw, dressed down performances of his ensemble and also highly curated given the meticulously created environments wherein these characters wonder. The result effectively transports us to an environment that likely feels quite alien to American audiences, but also one we can recognize on a human level.

Streaming Pick: The Bicycle Thief

Director Vittorio De Sica’s classic of Italian neorealist cinema presents a similar moral quandary, about a father who steals a bike so who can do his job and provide for his family. The dilemma here is more straightforward than the one presented in Shoplifters, but does cover similar grounds of moral ambiguity. It’s a film school staple, but also a tender and largely affecting human drama.

Shoplifters, running 2 hours and 1 minute, is rated R for “some sexual content and nudity.” It is showing in area and New York City theaters. 4 Popcorn Buckets.

Ginger and Rosa: Touching look at teenage years

By Mark Schumann

(As we experience in Shoplifters, the experiences of families can fuel the plot of many a film. As you consider what to watch this weekend, try out a film that Shoplifters suggests, the comedy Ginger and Rosa from 2013.)

How easy it can be to look back at our youth through a lens of maturity that can connect dots that, at the time, were in disarray. What we may overlook as we remember is how crucial we found each moment as well as how we reacted to the little challenges that threatened our big pictures. No matter how we see our lives today we could never have guessed, when we were teenagers, what we would eventually experience in our lives. Acquiring a longer view takes time.

Of the many films that explore how teenagers think, Ginger and Rosa makes us believe we actually experience the lives of real teenagers. Without exaggerating the situations the characters face, or blurring their development with artificial interactions, the film dissects how young people struggle to balance the big issues with the day-to-day questions that capture their attention. By focusing on a specific time in the characters’ lives, without feeling compelled to tell a larger story, the film uses a close-up lens to examine how young people learn to process what happens in their worlds.

Sally Potter, the thoughtful filmmaker behind Orlando in the 1990s, creates an appealing environment for her teenager characters. Best friends since childhood, Ginger and Rosa do everything together; they skip school, hitchhike to adventures and process the questions that come to mind. Most pressing in their view, in 1962 when the story takes place, is the impending sense of doom created by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Adding complications to their fears are their parents’ failures to sustain meaningful relationships.

These young girls come to life on screen because Potter focuses her lens on the small moments they share. We feel, from the opening, that we are simply eavesdropping on their lives. Much as George Roy Hill did in the magical World of Henry Orient and George Lucas accomplished with American Graffiti, we become observers of people rather than viewers of a film. Potter creates this magic by not trying to be magical. Instead of making a movie she creates a sense of life and happens to know just the right moment to call “action”.

The performances help. Elle Fanning, a magical young actress who brings truth to every moment, makes Ginger a vibrant young woman who dares to ask questions that few of her peers may be willing to articulate. Whether or not the character brings much common sense to her life can be debated just as the choices she makes in her relationships. But no one can doubt the sincerity of Fanning’s performance. This actress has the ability to fill every moment with authentic expression and energy. The other wondrous work in the film comes from Annette Bening who, in a small role, creates such a sense of calm that enables Fanning to thrive. Someday soon I hope someone creates the role that brings Bening the raves she deserves.

Ginger and Rosa manages to tell its touching story in an efficient 90 minutes, without excessive profanity, unnecessary violence or nudity. That Potter shows such restraint in this cinema era of bathroom humor is a credit to her artistic view. For her what matters on screen is what occurs inside her characters rather than the excessive behavior they could demonstrate. And she reminds us the big things that a small film can accomplish.

Ginger and Rosa, from 2013, is rated PG-13 for “thematic material involving teen choices – sexuality, drinking, smoking, and for language.” The film runs 90 minutes. 4 Popcorn Buckets. 

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