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'Like Father, Like Son' Avoids Schmaltz In Its Switched-At-Birth Plot

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Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya (Father) and Keita Nonomiya as Keita Ninomiya (Son) in Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s "Like Father, Like Son." (Photo courtesy of Fuji Television Network, Inc./Amuse Inc./Gaga Corporation)
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The premise of Like Father, Like Son—a family discovers the child they have been raising for six years was actually switched at birth—is the stuff of treacle-laced sentimentality and Hallmark Movie Channel schmaltz. But to its credit, the directing and strong performances of Like Father, Like Son help it rise above banal mediocrity and earn the Jury Prize at Cannes last year. So maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that the head of the jury Steven Spielberg, a man who has forever dealt with his relationship with his father through his work, purchased the rights for his DreamWorks Studio to produce an American remake.

Like Father, Like Son focuses on the family of Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama), an affluent member of a Tokyo-based architecture firm. He's so dedicated to his own career that he spends his weekends in the office—ironically, this allows his own colleagues to spend time with their families. His brand of paternal tough love rears its ugly head in the very first scene of the film: at a family interview for primary school admission, Ryota expresses disappointment in 6-year-old Keita's resigned nature. Then, he and his wife (Machiko Ono) get a phone call from the hospital where Keita was born six years ago, receiving the dreadful news that Keita is not their biological son.

As you might expect, Like Father, Like Son does become an exploration of nature vs. nurture, but writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows, Still Walking, I Wish) injects a dose of class consciousness to give the story life. Their birth son turns out to have been raised by the Saikis (Lily Franky and Yoko Maki), a working-class, small-town family, where their patriarch's motto of "Put off to tomorrow whatever you can" flies in the face of Ryota's go-getter lifestyle. Emboldened by his urban elitism, Ryota at first offers financial compensation to the family to raise both Keita and his biological son Ryusei as his own, but settles to make the switch instead. Kore-eda never embellishes such charged material with excess. Instead of letting emotions burden the material, he instead directs with austerity, focusing on the small details. Ryota's brief observation that Ryusei picked up Mr. Saiki's habit of chewing drinking straws is the film's loudest statement.

What truly keeps Like Father, Like Son afloat is how Kore-eda and his actors portray the titular characters that make up the (English) title of the film. Kore-eda provides the children at the heart of the story with a sense of dignity usually not afforded by most films. Instead of becoming vessels for endless streams of tears, both Keita and Ryusei show a burgeoning mind dealing with great confusion and frustration at processing an arrangement outside of their control. For Fukuyama's Ryota, his greatest shortcomings at being a father seem irredeemable. In a lesser film, an eleventh hour plot twist would unlock his heart of gold. But Like Father, Like Son doesn't see him as a man that had it in him all along, but instead has to grow into it alongside his son, blood-related or not. Mr. Spielberg, please treat this one with care.

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Like Father, Like Son opens tomorrow at Laemmle's Royal (West L.A.) and Playhouse 7 (Pasadena).