“Chosen family” is a term most often associated with the LGBTQA+ community. It’s used to describe a close circle of friends who love each other like family, though there is no shared blood between them. Chosen families are how many queer people find community, comfort, and home after their biological relatives have offered them rejection, scorn, or outright ostracizing. Acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda creates a unique and heart-warming tale of such a family with Shoplifters.
Written and helmed by Kore-eda, Shoplifters follows a family living in poverty in Japan. But they are not suffering over their lack of fortune. Instead, they relish their good fortune in having each other. All pull together to bring food to their family dinner each night. Their plucky patriarch Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) has the loose but playful physicality of a circus clown, with a mischievous smile to match. He takes odd jobs where he can but routinely trains his stoic son Shota (Jyo Kairi) in shoplifting. Osamu’s wife Noboyu (Sakura Andô) plucks forgotten coins or jewelry from the pockets of the clothing she launders, while their college-aged daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works at a peep show, shimmying in a sexy school girl costume for silent voyeurs. Even fiery grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) chips in, thanks to her penchant for pachinko and the pension from her late husband. Their workdays are spiked with indignities like cut wages, on-site injuries, and groveling for extra cash. But under their roof, the Shibata family has a safe place of love and respect, shown through non-stop, almost cacophonic banter. They are poor but happy. However, this bliss is threatened on a cruelly cold night when Osamu finds a scarred and abandoned five-year-old girl.
It begins with taking in little Juri (Miyu Sasaki) to give her a hot meal. But when they aim to return her afterward, husband and wife overhear a vicious fight in which the girls’ parents shout they are glad to be rid of her. That settles it. The Shibatas decide to unofficially adopt Juri, if she’ll have them. It’s kind-hearted but still kidnapping. However, the little girl is happy to stay with this caring clan and begins to learn their grifter ways. Through shoplifting trips, gentle baths, and beach visits, she bonds quickly with much of her chosen family, but Shota resents the attention his new sister garners. His festering jealousy sparks a catastrophic chain of events that will change this family forever.
This might sound like it’d be a bleak melodrama. But Shoplifters is nuanced in performance and defiantly jubilant in tone. There’s a lightness to the Shibata family as they exchange playful barbs along with generous smiles and knowing glances. Not because they are blind to the obstacles in their lives or the scornful stares of others, but because they find happiness in whom they are together. While the film is not explicitly queer, its chosen family and their defiant joy feel queer in the same way as drag shows or pride parades. This family’s freak flags are not nearly as glamorous or gay, but all the same, they are beautiful and inspiring as they fly high. When the world casts you as a misfit, self-love and chosen families can feel transgressive, but more than that glorious. And Shoplifters captures this with experience with a radiant humanity, be it grandma and the sex-working daughter talking over the quirks of her job, or little Juri relishing a bathing-suit stolen as a gift instead of bought as an apology, or husband and wife discovering a rare moment alone to reconnect in haphazard but passionate love-making.
While Kore-eda finds beauty in the bonds of this impoverished family, he never veers into romanticizing their poverty. Like The Florida Project, Shoplifters is unsentimental in painting the squalor of this family’s lives. Their clothes are faded and ill-fitting. Their ramshackle space is constantly cluttered, crowded with discarded bowls, shared beds, and kids poking out of a clubhouse made out of a cramped cupboard. A found marble is a coveted treasure. And a stranger gifting two popsicles is a startling kindness. Theirs is not a pretty life, but it is enviably one alive with love and joy and a scandalous freedom from convention.
For anyone who has ever felt an outcast, Shoplifters will be a balm. Kore-eda has sculpted a breathtakingly delicate exploration of what it means to find your tribe. That he grounds it in a world that is smeared with dirt and streaked with scars only makes its resilient heart shine all the brighter.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com