It’s a storyline that sounds like something “ripped from the headlines” and quickly shaped into an overwrought made-for-TV movie – two very different families discover that their young sons were switched at birth, and they soon try to navigate the tricky and sticky waters of a horrifying truth they never set about knowing – but Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son is a beautifully rendered and intensely emotional feature that finds its charms and strengths in the realistic and the relatable.
The three-member Nonomiya family – father Ryota, mother Midori, son Keita – is a mostly happy little unit, with Ryota’s (Masaharu Fukuyama) professional successes helping to provide the doting Midori and the spunky Keita (Keita Ninomiya) with a comfortable lifestyle that benefits all of them. Midori, played beautifully by the lovely Machiko Ono, is deeply bonded to her son, and while the work-minded Ryota is consistently put out by Keita’s apparent lack of academic guile (at least, the kind that Ryota would like his son to have), Midori’s affection seems like enough to keep the kid going. With Keita poised to enter a fancy private school in the spring, it seems like everything is starting to work out for the Nonomiya clan, until a single phone call destroys everything they thought they knew about life, family, and each other.
While the film has a storyline that sounds better suited to a bad Lifetime television movie (one phone call changes it all!), Koreeda treats his subject matter with such sensitivity and realism that it never feels cheesy or exploitative. Like Father, Like Son is a film about meaningless tragedies that simply happen to people, the sort of heartbreaks that exist far outside the realm of understandable occurrence (even when Koreeda’s film does provide a big, messy chunk of information as to how and why the switch happened, it doesn’t satisfy, it just makes things worse), and the relatively innocuous way in which the news that young Keita isn’t actually the Nonomiyas’ son is delivered only helps drive that point home.
Ryota and Midori soon meet the Saikis, Keita’s actual parents and the couple that has been raising the Nonomiyas’ real son (the sunshiny Ryusei, played by Shogen Hwang). While the two couples amicably pair up to untangle a no-win situation and to battle the hospital that switched the boys, their early friendship seems wholly unsustainable and unstable. It is.
Even after the introduction of the Saikis – happy people who own an electronics shop, have two other children, and are in a markedly lower social class than the Nonomiyas – the film remains principally fixed on the Nonomiyas, particularly Ryota. Despite his business acumen and professional success, Ryota is unmoored when it comes to personal matters, and he is continually influenced by the opinions of others. When the hospital administrators tell him that “100 percent” of people who go through similar situations decide to switch their children back, it seems impossible to fathom that Ryota will not demand such a switch; when his boss suggests the more well-off Nonomiyas raise both boys, he tries to force such a situation (much to Midori’s embarrassment and the Saikis’ shock); and he even begins to value Ryusei’s similar looks over Keita’s emotional bond, all thanks to a tossed off comment from his own father. When tasked with horrifying and hard to handle situations, Ryota shuts down, and his disconnect with Keita, Midori, Ryusei, and even the Saikis evolves throughout the film, until it’s unquestionable that the “father” of the title is Ryota, and the “son” is up for debate. Every single one of his interactions with either boy recalls a scene early on, when the Ninomayas first meet the Saikis, and Ryota searchingly observes cell phone video and pictures of Ryusei, trying (and failing) to find something of himself in the images.
Koreeda never takes the easy way out of what seems to be a simply impossible situation with absolutely no easy answers, but the graceful nature in which he lets his film unfold (and with a meandering two-hour runtime, Like Father, Like Son certainly takes it time to unfold) keeps it ever engaging. The performances are uniformly solid, with Fukuyama and Ono frequently standing out, and charming and natural work by both Ninomiya and Hwang that recommend the pair as kid talents to watch.
The film is punctuated by an ever-increasing series of heart-wrenching moments, small bits that stick and sting quickly, brief glimpses that leave a mark. Such moments steadily ratchet up, until they’re coming fast and furious and frequent in the film’s final act, and the whole damn thing hits you like a ton of metaphorical bricks. Like Father, Like Son has a pervasive power that slowly grabs hold of both the audience and its characters, never quite daring to let go.
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