What makes a group of people a family -- blood or the time spent together? That is the question “Like Father, Like Son” attempts to answer. Hirokazu Koreeda’s Grand Jury prize winning film has a touching message at the heart, but tends to drag and just misses the bulls-eye in key moments.
The story centers on Ryota Nonomiya, a very driven business-man who tries and teaches his son the same tendencies. That is until the hospital where his son was born in calls and reveals that a nurse switched their actual child with one from a poor family. Now they must decide whether to switch children back to their birth parents, or keep the son they have raised for the past six years.
Seeing the film through Ryota’s eyes, the film can come off a little cold, but that is because he is not an overtly sentimental man/father when the film begins. The character is much more matter of fact and that is conveyed extremely well by Masaharu Fukuyama. This also creates a strong contrast between the other family they switched kids with, as they are more open with their affection and personalities.
The film’s attempts to break down the barrier that is set up by Ryota’s character don’t fulfill their desired impact. Ryota’s relationship with his step-mother is a big one; that relationship is never properly developed, it isn’t even clear until the vital scene between the two characters how long she has been Ryota’s step-mother, we only know that Ryota has a hard time calling her Mom. It may be too on-the-nose, but developing that relationship even just a little more could have added some necessary emotion in the middle part of the film.
It is the final portion of the film, when Ryota learns to become a more accepting and affectionate father, is where the film truly shines. There are good moments here and there leading up to this final act, but because of the distance the director creates it is hard to really connect with them as much as we would like to until that barrier is fully brought down. It all leads up to a very touching scene between Ryota and the son that he raised in the climatic scene.
It’s hard to spoil the film because it is rather predictable – Ryota learns that blood doesn’t necessarily make you family. Still it is a nice message and you definitely feel good about the film when the credits roll.
Koreeda is obviously a skilled craftsmen, and perhaps it is a little bit of a cultural disconnect that keeps the middle part of the film from hitting on all cylinders, but the happy ending feels as good as you would expect it. At the end of the day, with a film like “Like Father, Like Son,” some times that’s all you need.
“Like Father, Like Son” opens in New York on Jan. 17 and Los Angeles on Jan. 24.