Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son does exactly what you know it will, although for about 80 minutes, that isn’t always a bad thing. Several scenes find themselves relying on montage and small details to transform the mundane into the cinematic. Two families, the richer Nonomiya’s, headed by the somewhat neglectful but hard-working Ryota, and the less affluent Sudai’s, learn after six years of raising the other’s child, that their children were switched at birth. The conflict, of course, is whether they want to “trade” and begin raising their own blood or continue to raise the child they have always called their own. The familiar themes of nature vs. nurture are present, of course, and even amplified by the opposing statuses, but if Like Father, Like Son has its own hook, it’s the attention Koreeda pays to the thoughts and feelings of the kids involved. Much of this is because the performances of the kids are so strong, as they are in Koreeda’s tougher but more thematically-rewarding Nobody Knows, and because Koreeda’s high-energy, classical-music montages are so great this time around. Still, the film still steers too often into the familiar familial clashes and conflicts.
There is a keen use of visual detail to display class differences, as when the poorer father pulls out his flip-phone to show a video of the child he has been raising after we have grown accustomed to smart phones, in the use of costuming throughout (suits vs. casual wear), and in juxtaposing the old, large station wagon next to the richer father’s newer, sleeker ride. Koreeda largely avoided dialogue in Nobody Knows, and it caused pacing issues and difficulty at times, as the decision to steadfastly adhere to naturalistic acting styles made it difficult to follow (and it’s hard to buy that the mom telling them to keep quiet succeeded for so long), but here the problem is the opposite: the excess of dialogue too often highlights the film’s themes. On at least three occasions, we are treated to big conversations about the damages the hospital must pay and/or the difference in wealth between the families when the aforementioned juxtapositions throughout, and the first 15 minutes of the film makes it far too clear that Ryota is a workaholic father who expects a lot of his son—despite barely showing him at work (and the one time it does, we get a bit of dialogue from a coworker along the lines of “your hard work here allows me to spend time at home with my family”). Once the audience is fully primed, however, it’s occasionally poetic, and the moments of the parents interacting with each kid—the one they raised and the one that belongs to them—are subtle but powerful.
Until the inevitable event occurs, as it must in any switched-at-birth story especially one that informs you at the introduction of the conflict that “100%” of these situations end with the parents agreeing to trade and raise their own blood, and the “exchange” or “correction” is made. At first, the decision to continue the film beyond this point is puzzlingly because the questions of ethics and situation that surrounded the film up to this point are now necessarily relegated to the background. As it continues along its belated next act, however, the film only destroys its subtler questions of nature vs. nurture. In the end, it feels like Hollywood-grade sentiment about the Importance of Spending Time with Family. Overwhelming the quiet strengths in the film’s first two-thirds could almost be forgiven if I thought they were more incidental than important, but unfortunately, all that heavy-handed dialogue just makes the shift even more jarring and ill-advised, rendering many of the film’s best moments pointless, and giving the film novelistic aspirations that betray the thin narrative.
In many ways, this is a continuation of Koreeda’s bad tendencies, namely the way in which he bypasses strong endings and powerful closing images or sequences (in this case, a still photo of both families that suggests the way coincidence and errors create larger families, and a montage in which Ryota and his son finally embrace one another) in the name of either redundancy or, as it happens here, to ask another big question, despite the inability to fully address it in the remaining run-time and the repercussions it has on the first part of the film. It’s this lack of focus, combined with a tendency to clumsily alert us to new themes, which euthanizes the film, begging us to treat it as if it belongs in shoes far too large for it to fill.