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Our Little Sister
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by Jay Seaver

"Perfectly charming."
5 stars

There probably won't be a sweeter movie this year than "Our Little Sister", and not just because few filmmakers aim for that. It is wonderful to see something like this appear, though, because it is a joy to sit down in the theater and see people at their best without ever feeling like they've been made overly simplistic or the situations less honest. It's two hours that few people could do nearly as well as Hirokazu Kore-eda.

There's a house in Kamakata where the three Koda sisters live. Sachi (Haruka Ayase), the oldest, is a nurse and a sort of den mother; Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) is a couple years younger and likes her alcohol and men; Chika (Kaho) is just out of high scool and a bit of an eccentric. They're a tight enough family unit that when the news comes that their father has died in Yamagata with his third wife, they aren't too concerned about going; they haven't seen him since he left fifteen years ago. Yoshino and Chika do, and that's where they meet Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose), the fourteen-year-old daughter of the woman for whom their father left their family. Seeing that Suzu is not especially close to her stepmother, the sisters ask if she would like to move in with them, an offer she eagerly accepts.

At this point, something like ninety percent of the narratives based upon this concept would focus on the Suzu being taken in out of a reluctant sense of duty, or hidden resentments coming out. Instead, Kore-eda (adapting the manga Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida) quickly establishes that the Kodas connect with Suzu out of a sense of empathy and seem puzzled in a genuine way when someone in their lives suggests that they might or should harbor hard feelings toward Suzu. It's actually an exciting development despite appearing to be the very opposite of dramatic, both because it feels like the opposite of what always happens (and thus uncharted territory) and because, in doing so, Kore-eda is clearly setting up for a number of smaller, but no less intriguing, ways of looking at the situation.

It starts at the father's funeral, where Kore-eda and cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto establish a pattern of putting a sober, uncertain face in the middle of the screen in quiet contrast to the happy faces around it and the laughter on the soundtrack. Suzu declares that she wants to move to Kamakata just as the train door closes with her sisters on the other side, and even though the film cuts almost directly to the four of them unloading a moving van, the fear of rejection lingers. The makeshift family is often unwieldy when shown as a whole despite their being meaningful connections between pairs of sisters, and the father casts a long shadow, the same man being very different things to Sachi, Suzu, and Chaki.

The father is never actually glimpsed, even in a photograph, which is a fair way to represent the void he now represents for all four sisters, and how their relationship will not be defined through him. Kore-eda weaves the acceptance of loss as a theme throughout the film - it not only starts with a funeral, but has one at the end, with an anniversary memorial service serving as an important spot in the middle. Though the film is not terribly concerned with the men in the sisters' lives, there's weight to the ones who do leave even as it often happens in the most undramatic of ways possible, while the relationships that do last through the movie seem to be monuments to simple understanding as much as anything else.

For all that, Kore-eda also makes the film a tribute to small-town life and bonds. He's careful to show that Kamakata is not especially unique in this regard - the sisters note that their father found a similar view in both places - and has nobody make a particular point of it; the most is a character or two not really cut out for that sort of life. Still, it's worth noting that Chaki and her boyfriend are fans of the youth soccer team before Suzu joins, and the folks at local businesses are family friends - even the banker is community-minded. Many of those businesses are eateries, and food plays a notable role in creating the setting - humble cuisine that has sentimental value.

The actresses deliver understated but enjoyable performances as well. Suzu Hirose is great as her namesake, capturing the maturity other characters use to describe her but always including the right amount of self-doubt and youthful enthusiasm as well. It's a personality often echoed by Haruka Ayase as Sachi; she lets just the right amount of bitterness creep into her voice when talking about their father early on to make sure that the audience understands that the anger is unusual rather than the serenity. She's a good pairing with Masami Nagasawa, whose Yoshino is written as the opposite of her in temperament - not nearly so careful, probably the one most likely to move to the city - and it's fun to see them naturally at odds but also fiercely devoted. Kaho often gives Chika the sort of wide-eyed innocence that initially has her pegged as a teenager, and she plays the character as both kind of eccentric and sensible, showing a lot of delight at having a kid sister after twenty years of wanting one. All four are supported by a fine coterie of actors, as well.

It doesn't sound like much, but that's almost to be expected from Kore-eda by now; he's made a career out of building films out of small moments that, when put together, become things of beauty. "Our Little Sister" may be the sunniest of them, and it may just be the most delightful two hours you can spend watching a recent movie.

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originally posted: 08/11/16 10:14:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2015 AFI Film Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2015 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 London Film Festival For more in the 2015 London Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Hirokazu Koreeda

Written by
  Hirokazu Koreeda

  Haruka Ayase
  Masami Nagasawa
  Suzu Hirose
  Ryo Kase
  Ryohei Suzuki

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