Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Sonbegins with a scene in which Keita, six, and his parents attend an interview at a fancy-looking elementary school. This must be par for the course in Japan, but to an outsider it looks astonishingly intimidating, far more inquisition-like than any job interview I’ve ever had.

The board asks which parent Keita takes after, and Keita’s father nominates his wife, because, like her, Keita doesn’t mind not winning. Keita’s father finds this attitude difficult to deal with. What seems like a throwaway, if harsh, assessment of a six year old is actually what Koreeda’s film, which might as well have been titled Blood Ties, is all about.

A couple of scenes later, Keita’s parents get a call from the hospital in which he was born. They’re informed that six years ago, a disgruntled nurse swapped their baby with another, and Keita is in fact somebody else’s child.

The rest of the film is spent teasing out the implications of this revelation on two families: Keita’s birth parents and the couple who have raised him as their own for the last six years. The film manages to be sad but not miserabilist, clear-eyed but low key. Nothing is underlined or accompanied by strings, and there’s nothing slick about Koreeda’s technique. The performances are very fine, especially from the kids. Koreeda has form getting natural performances from child actors, and the ones here seem remarkably unaffected.

This is the kind of film, an intelligent drama about the middle classes in the burbs, which we rarely make in Australia. We seem to have two reliable genres: gritty crime or the comedy of caricature.Like Father, Like Son, on the other hand, demonstrates that the small stories can feel the biggest. It might not have the razzle-dazzle, but it exerts a vice-like grip.

4/5 stars

Like Father, Like Son is incinemas April 17

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