At first glance, the poverty-stricken erstwhile family at the heart of this devastating film adheres to the standard family breakdown: there’s the elderly grandmother, the husband and wife, the college-age daughter and the young teen son. The family lives right on the societal abyss of homelessness. They live in a ramshackle house and with money the father and son make from stealing, the older girl makes from sexual favors and the grandmother brings in by continuing to claim her dead husband’s pension, they can just about keep their heads above water. As the film begins, the family gains another member, a young girl left abandoned in the winter cold by her parents. As the film progresses, we’ll slowly begin to get details about the way this motley crew, not all related by blood as it might have seemed at first, were brought together by their shared status as the societally forgotten. The performances are astounding here. Every member of the cast is absolutely perfect. If there’s a standout, it’s probably Sakura Ando as Noboyu, the “mother” of the family; there’s a depth to her performance that’s really astounding, even as it’s also extremely natural. Lily Franky is a lot of fun as the father; he masks his desperation and fear in good humored playfulness, but the darker side leaks through around the edges of his smiles and laughs. Mayu Matsuoka is a real revelation as the oldest “daughter;” she keeps the stereotypical fragility that might have accompanied her character at bay and the fact that she might just be the strongest of any of the family is something the viewer only slowly grasps as the film rolls on. Kairi Jo is also of special note as the young son; he gives a performance that belies his age, a performance filled with reservation about the life of small-time crime he’s leading and uncertainty about where exactly his life might be going. The movie has a lot going on in terms of its ideas, of course, about families, both natural and constructed, and about the experiences of a social class that one rarely sees in film, a class that’s clinging to that last rung of the ladder, just one misstep or misfortune away from slipping down into that final abyss. But the film is about the characters and Koreeda doesn’t skimp on the emotional element of the film. Some may question the direction the film goes in the last fifteen to twenty minutes, but, for me, while it was kind of unexpected, it does still perfectly set up the final gut-punch of the movie. There’s some humor here, actually, in terms of the characters’ relationships and eccentricities, but this is heavy, heavy going. But it’s worth the trip; it’s a truly masterful film, filled with sorrow & pain, reaching a level of real emotional catharsis. It’s not fun, it’s sometimes downright punishing, but it’s brilliant – film that perfectly fits Roger Ebert’s definition: an empathy generator. 4 stars.
tl;dr – brilliant ensemble drama about life in absolute poverty is heart-wrenching, sorrowful and wonderfully performed; a beautiful, empathetic masterpiece. 4 stars.