When some filmmakers focus on children or childishness, they’re often just interested in nostalgia for childhood. The kids in Wes Anderson’s films and in a lot of movies Steven Spielberg produces are generic placeholders or evocations of other times and eras and experiences — loss of virginity, love of movies, discovery of a bygone world, precociousness as a means of self-flattery. It’s not always false. But with a director like Hirokazu Koreeda, you never feel a childhood being remembered or a quaint longing for a lost moment in time. Children are simply people. They have inner lives and worries and desires.
Koichi and Ryu, the two brothers in Koreeda’s new film, “I Wish,” are keen, curious, and blissfully, foolishly adventuresome enough to fall well shy of adulthood, which here is characterized by a kind of fecklessness, lassitude, and guilt. Neither brother has seen the other in a while. Their parents are young and splitting up. This means that Koichi (Koki Maeda), who’s about 12, lives with their mother (Nene Otsuka) at her parents’ home in Kagoshima, a city on Japan’s southern tip. Ryu (Koki’s little brother, Oshiro) lives with their father (Joe Odagiri), who shares a country house with the dudes in his band.
For most of the film, the brothers bop around their respective towns with their friends. They talk to each other on the phone. They swim; they go to class. Koichi is pudgy and restless, kind and patient. He has a strong bond with his maternal grandfather (Isao Hashizume). One of the funnier sights in the film is of him interrupting his sweaty jog to stare at pictures of food. Ryu’s personality is the opposite of his brother’s. It’s so big and boundless it could form a bond with atomic particles. His brightness makes Koichi’s serenity seem almost recessive. Ryu’s friends, two girls and one androgynous boy, clearly adore him, but as he sprints to his desk or flops around the playground trying to catch an insect with his hat, you can see how his buddies might be a little exhausted by him, too. But Oshiro Maeda is a complete original — cartoonish, soulful, and smart.
Once in a while, Koreeda cuts to moments with the boys’ heartsick mother and with Ryu’s older, more solemn friend, Megumi (Cara Uchida), an aspiring actress who needs her mother to take her seriously. These are small, poignant tangents that speak to the film’s larger emotional truth. Narratively, that’s not much. But you don’t watch a movie like “I Wish” for the structure of a plot. It’s rhythm, observation, and feeling that you want. Eventually, the brothers enact a secret plot, abetted by a few empathetic adults, to ditch school and meet in a neutral town where they’ll shout out wishes as they watch the passing of high-speed trains. By that point, “I Wish” has become the sort of small film of real consequence that, as a kid, I remember seeing and completely losing myself in: That was my life. I watched this new movie across the aisle from two young women who laughed and smiled and were generally absorbed. When the lights came up, I knew I’d had the full Koreeda effect: My aislemates were actually about 12.
Time and again, in much greater, more emotionally searing movies like “After Life,” “Distance,” “Nobody Knows,” and “Still Walking,” Koreeda finds ways of managing joy and sadness so that both seem to operate simultaneously. At one point in “I Wish,” a dead pet is played as the most upsetting and funniest thing. At another, Koichi sees four people who remind him of the family he no longer has. Each of these characters is hurting, but the source of that pain is the common spate of blows life often deals. No one suffers greatly — nothing here could be called harsh. This is much too buoyant a movie for tragedy. But Koreeda’s achievement is that he gives us children who might weigh more, emotionally, than their parents, yet they’re still these little creatures learning how to wield and bear that weight.
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