Opening Friday, Jan. 11

What makes a family? That’s the wrenching question Hirokazu Kore-eda asks in his latest film. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and a hit with audiences in Japan, Shoplifters, which finally gets a local run starting today, proved nearly impossible to dislike. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s an easy watch. Though irresistibly sentimental—a “family movie,” with everything that label entails—it’s also an unflinching deconstruction of the cultural and affective ties that keep families together, rooted in brilliant performances by the ensemble cast of veterans and young newcomers.

We’re introduced to the Shibata family through a neutral, wordless scene of Osamu (Lily Franky) and his young son, Shota (Jyo Kairi), lifting some food from a supermarket. Later, they come across Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a little girl seemingly abandoned by her parents. They take her in off the street, and right away she is almost seamlessly integrated into their home life. It’s a household mainly run by a trio of charismatic women, each with a hustle of her own.

Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), works at a laundry; Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works in a peep show; and they all depend on the pension of Aki’s grandmother, the elderly widow Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki, in her final role). Half in and half outside the law, the Shibata’s world is overcrowded and teetering on the edge of poverty, but it’s also fun. Whether they’re gathered around the only table in their apartment eating pilfered gluten cakes or taking a trip to the beach, their lives have the carefree feeling of a children’s game. When evidence of abuse leads the family to decide not to return Yuri to her parents, their fundamental goodness seems confirmed.

Much of the rest of the film builds on this idealized image of a hardscrabble band of outcasts held together by a palpable familial bond that transcends traditional (and oppressive) social norms. The sympathy only increases as the question of who is actually related to whom grows less clear. As Yuri’s disappearance begins to attract notice, the bonds of the Shibatas’ quasi-intentional family come under increasing pressure. Vignettes focusing on the characters’ individual stories show them to have been driven together by the afflictions of the conventional family, much like Yuri. But the layers of grift and deceit that make their lives possible catch up with them in almost unbearably heartbreaking ways.

Kore-eda belongs to a classic tradition of Japanese cinema that goes back to Ozu and the still-vital television genre of the “home drama.” The family has a special role in modern Japanese culture, and in these films, the wider problems of society play out through familial relations. The Shibata clan’s outsider perspective allows for a pointed critique of the traditional Japanese family’s patriarchal and conformist pressures. As they tell one another, this is a family that chooses to be together. But Kore-eda’s balanced humanism doesn’t let the critique cut in only one direction. Ultimately, he asks, if modern capitalist society is held together only by money and threats of force, what does it mean to escape authority? Can choice ever be enough?