Mill Valley Film Festival attendees will be rewarded many times over by putting Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new film “Like Father, Like Son” on their must-see list. This winner of the Cannes Film Festival Jury Award sensitively portrays the consequences of an emotionally disruptive discovery befalling a fairly well-off family.
Ryota Nonomiya is a successful rising architect with an attractive wife and an intelligent son. Keita, Ryota’s son, reflects his father’s dedication to hard work and self-sufficiency…except when he doesn’t. The hospital where Midori Nonomiya had Keita informs the Nonomiyas that the boy is not their biological son. He was switched at birth with a boy named Ryusei. Ryota’s horror is further compounded on learning that Ryusei is ensconced as part of the family of a spectacularly underachieving electrician named Shikai. Will Ryota let nature or nurture determine which boy he will treat as his child?
The switching of babies at birth has traditionally been used as a plot device in tales of rightful heirs denied their chance to sit on the royal throne. Yet as Kore-eda’s film shows, the circumstances in which a child is raised can be more influential than bloodline in determining that child’s personality. Possession of a particular bloodline becomes the result of blind fortune rather than entitlement.
Ryota’s material success has been accompanied by a hard-driving attitude he’s impressed on Keita. That attitude is expressed in the architect’s maxim that taking one day off work results in spending three days to catch up later. Shikai earns Ryota’s cold disdain by his casual attitude towards work and the implication that the electrician’s nurturing has corrupted the potential of the biological Nonomiya child. Yet the architect’s treating of kindness as a child-spoiling quality makes his approach emotionally inferior to the working class electrician’s interactions with his children. The kindness and love Shikai displays towards his kids radiates off the screen.
One of the film’s ironies is its undermining of the title’s implication that a child must be a parent’s emotional photocopy. If anything, Kore-eda argues that it’s far better for the child to adopt some of the parent’s emotional strengths but also to find their own path in life. That point gets poignantly made when the film introduces the viewer to Ryota’s parents.
The film’s other irony comes from the claim that Keita and Ryusei are young enough to accept being surrendered to their biological parents. But could the boys’ acceptance actually be a fatalistic resignation to the adults having the final word?
8-year-old Rachel and uninhibited classmate Valerie live lives blown about by the winds of fortune and circumstance. Carine Tardieu’s charming film appropriately dubs the two girls “The Dandelions” as it follows their misadventures in 1981 provincial France. Supported by wonderful performances from Agnes Jaoui and Isabella Rossellini, this comedy with touches of drama entertainingly chronicles the little girls’ encounters with parental neuroses and ridiculous officiousness. Rachel and Valerie aren’t “South Park”’s Cartman, but saying a teacher “sucks socks” induces smiles.
Anthony Joseph Guinta earns some good karma points by tackling the subject of high school bullying in his drama “Contest.” Yet the writer/director’s good intentions can’t overcome the over-familiar and semi-clueless treatment of the subject.
Matt Prylek, captain of St. Raymond High’s swim team, is forced to change his ways when his leading his team’s near-drowning of decided non-swimmer Tommy Dolen winds up endangering his chances for a college swimming scholarship. Meanwhile, Tommy reluctantly takes part in a TV cooking contest to save his beloved grandmother’s pizza place. When circumstances put Matt and Tommy on the same cooking contest team, the two boys’ understanding of each other slowly changes. Yet the machinations of Matt’s older brother Kyle threatens to sabotage both boys’ attempts to achieve their goals.
Very little brainpower is needed to understand that beside the cooking contest, both Matt and Tommy have to struggle with the destructive habits of their respective pasts. The great pity is that the obstacles mounted in each character’s way never raise the slightest scintilla of viewer doubt about each character’s ability to overcome their challenges.
Unsurprisingly, “Contest”’s flabby writing also gets reflected in its underwritten treatment of the elderly pizza place owner. Tommy’s grandmother Angela Marie never self-disqualifies herself for nomination for sainthood. Nor is it clear whether what happens to Angela Marie later resulted from shock at learning what secret her grandson kept from her or whether the old woman got seriously beaten.
The film’s greatest problem is its outdated and compromised handling of its central subject of school bullying. In “Contest”’s world, the bullying problem still revolves around jocks tormenting non-jocks. Homophobia in the form of false perceptions of Tommy as gay thanks to his skill in home economics isn’t really dealt with. Internet-based bullying, which has led to some real-life suicides, gets minimized with a quick scene of an insultingly Photoshopped picture of another student. Surely a current problem born out of the toxic soil of anonymous cruelty made possible by the Internet deserved better dramatic treatment.
“Contest” unfortunately mistakes being accessible to audiences aged 7 and up with being dramatically truthful to its subject. Tommy’s contemplation of suicide is never made visually clear. The motivations of Kyle and the film’s other villains come across primarily as a love of just being evil. Even when the film briefly shows the bloodied face of a boy after being savagely beaten, the effect is less shock than annoyance.
Dramatic looks at modern-day bullying in America do need to be made. But “Contest” will not be the go-to film on this subject.
(“Like Father, Like Son” screens on October 9, 2013 at 2:30 PM. “The Dandelions” screens on October 13, 2013 at 11:45 AM. “Contest” screens on October 5, 2013 at 1:00 PM. All screenings take place at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center (1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael). For further information about the films and other screening times, go to www.mvff.com