It used to be that Indiana was pretty much a toxic wasteland when it came to quality foreign cinema. While Castleton Arts and the Southside's Key Cinema would occasionally land intriguing entries, even they seemed to focus on domestic fare or offbeat experimental stuff. Eventually, of course, corporate America always comes around. Castleton Art's adorably spot off to the side of Castleton Square gave way to bigger and supposedly better plans, while Ron Keedy's strip center Key Cinema spent awhile as a comfortable indie alternative to Landmark's entry into the Indy indie market.
While many hoosiers statewide have lamented Indianapolis being the only place to watch quality foreign cinema in Indiana, the Jon Vickers arrival in Bloomington has increasingly made that college town a significant player in quality indie cinema. So, it's not particularly surprising to see the arrival in Bloomington, without having played here in Indianapolis, of Hirokazu Kore-eda's tender and warm Our Little Sister, the story of three sisters, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), and Chika (Kaho) who live together in a seaside town following estrangement with their kind but philandering father. When they learn of their father's passing, they decide to travel to the countryside to attend the funeral where they meet for the first time Suzu (Suzu Hirose), their half-sister who was born out of their father's affair while married to their own mother.
It would be reasonable for you to assume that Our Little Sister would turn into a taut family drama, a battle between three well-bonded adult children with their younger step-sibling over the family fortunes, the type of dramatic storyline that would seem to find its way into American cinema quite often. After all, there must always be conflict. Right?
Not so much.
Based upon a manga by Akimi Yoshida, writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Like Father, Like Son) has crafted a patient and tender tale that meanders its way through its just over two-hour running time with the simplicity of human drama to guide it along and a rather remarkable lack of hyped up and histrionic drama to distract us from the wonder of watching four young women discover how to reshape and redefine family to allow for a plus one.
The three eldest young women are all in their 20's, with Sachi, a nurse, having assumed a sort of maternal role amongst the sisters despite her own struggles with behavior not far removed from that of her father. Yoshino is the free spirit amongst the group, though this free spirit lacks the hardcore rebellion we so often see in American cinema. Chika, played by the wonderful Kaho, is the quirkiest of the bunch though, once again, there are no hard and fast stereotypes playing out here as the overwhelming emphasis is on the family unit rather than the individuals.
Suzu, on the other hand, is a 14-year-old young girl whose presence presents an aura of quiet woundedness, the kind of young woman whose upbringing seems to have defined her in ways not so positive. She is presented as neither evil nor angelic - she simply exists, though her spirit seemingly perks when invited into the household of these sisters she never knew.
Mikiya Takimoto's lensing is simply extraordinary here, a natural wonder of light and humanity. Takimoto doesn't force us inside the world of these sisters, but seems to gently rest the camera within their environment and then draws us in. Kore-eda captured the Cannes jury prize in 2013 with his last film, Like Father, Like Son, and while this film didn't experience a similar fate when it premiered at Cannes in 2015, it did prove to be one of the fest's more popular entries.
It's no wonder.
This is cinema the way that cinema is seldom done anymore. Our Little Sister gives us a couple of hours to bond with its characters and refuses to manipulate us along the way. Oh sure, there will be tiny human dramas along the way, mostly when the birth mother of the three older young women arrives on the scene, but these human dramas feel natural and at home within the fabric of the film's larger emphasis on figuring out life from moment-to-moment. It's these small moments that add up to the beautiful wonder that is Our Little Sister, a film that seemingly celebrates family exactly by refusing to define it.
It is rare in cinema to see a film that exhibits so much naturally developed goodness, a warmth of humanity both intimate and universal. Such is the case with Our Little Sister, a film that meanders intentionally yet is the better for it despite, I'd suspect, some American audiences having to shift the psyche a little bit to slow and take it all in as this kind of cinema feels like the quiet human experiences that Ron Keedy seemed to so often find for display in his ramshackle little gem on Indy's southside not too long ago for those willing to offer themselves to a different type of cinema.
Picked up by Sony Classics for an arthouse run here in the U.S., Our Little Sister opens at IU Cinema today and is easily worth the trip down to Bloomington to check it out. You'll be glad you did.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic