What makes a family?

Hirokazu Kore-eda crafts a story about a family living in poverty, living on the outskirts of Tokyo in a small, run down house barely big enough to fit them all. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, winning one of the film industry’s greatest prizes, the Palme d’Or, and became the first Japanese film to win the prize in over two decades. On the film winning, president of the jury, Cate Blanchett, said, “We were completely bowled over by Shoplifters. How intermeshed the performances were with the directorial vision”

The film follows Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Nobuyo Shibata), a couple living in cramped housing with a group composing of an elderly lady Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), her granddaughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and a young boy named Shota (Kairi Jō).

The group make their living mainly though Hatsue’s pension from her late husband. Osamu works in day labour, Nobuyo works at a laundry service, and Aki works as a hostess, but they make ends meet by having Osamu and Shota shoplift together.

One night on their way home from shoplifting, they find a young girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) alone, locked out of her house. They take her to have dinner with their family, but they decide not to return her when they find out Yuri has scars from child abuse.

Them adopting her into their family propels the second act—mostly compromising of the ways bringing Yuri into their lives have changed their relationships and highlighting the unique and beautiful rapport between characters. For example, bringing Yuri into the shoplifting act makes Shota jealous, as it’s something he does with Osamu—we even learn that he doesn’t refer to Osama as a father yet. Nobuyo doesn’t consider herself a mother but taking care of Yuri causes her to rethink what that means.

These relationships form the film, as we see them doing familial things like shopping and going to the beach. Their interactions are captivating and the chemistry between characters always reveals new sides to their personalities, forming complicated and multidimensional but loving people.

Several trials start to befall the family, such as Osamu injuring himself at work, Nobuyo getting laid off, Hatsue’s failing health, and Yuri’s real parents filing a missing person report. These trials test their bond as a group and strengthen their relationships through the hard times.

The film’s final act includes them being caught, forcing them to go their separate ways. After a beautiful and heartwarming exploration of their dynamics as a group, it ends with what feels like a gut punch, as the separate individuals fall slowly into loneliness. It’s in this act that Sakura Ando really shines. She delivers a haunting monologue during the police interrogation, dealing with motherhood and what it means to be and want to be a mother. It’s one of the year’s best performances and has been rewarded by several critics associations.

Shoplifters has been submitted this year as Japan’s entry for the Academy Awards, in the Foreign Language section. The film has big competition against the Mexican film Roma, which has Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) behind it, as well as Netflix campaigning for it heavily as their first big contender for film awards.

Nonetheless, Shoplifters is a great cinematic achievement, being nominated for almost 50 awards around the world including the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, Independent Spirit, and National Board of Review awards.

This is one of the most anticipated releases at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, where many of the world’s most buzzed about foreign and indie films often play. In addition to Shoplifters and Roma, the cinema is also playing Golden Globe nominated films such as the Lebanese Capernaum, the Japanese animation Mirai, Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, and Glenn Close’s winning performance in The Wife.