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'Our Little Sister' is Chekhov lite but provokes smiles

'Sister' centers on three grown sisters, portrayed by Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, and Kaho living together. The trio invite their half-sister (Suzo Hirose) to join them, too.

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    'Our Little Sister' stars (from l.) Haruka Ayase, Suzu Hirose, Kaho, and Masami Nagasawa.
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Writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Our Little Sister” is not for people craving sharp conflict in their movies. It’s pretty much a nonstop bliss-out, and so it may seem insubstantial by normal dramatic standards.

But some of those moments of bliss are so captivating that it seems churlish to go on about how the film is Chekhov lite – very lite. Insubstantiality when it’s as pleasurable as this surely has its own reason for being.

Three grown sisters all living together – Sachi (Haruka Ayase), a nurse at a local hospital having an affair with a married pediatrician; the fun-loving bank clerk Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa); and the sartorially challenged Chika (Kaho) – travel to the funeral for their father, who left the fold years ago to be with the woman, now dead, who was the mother of their teenage half-sibling, Suzu (Suzu Hirose). Living uneasily with her stepmother, Suzu, who is meeting her siblings for the first time, takes up their offer to move to their spacious seaside home in Kamakura, near Tokyo.

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If you were maybe expecting that Suzu would enable a rift in the sisters’ lives, you don’t know Kore-eda. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen quite as much smiling in one movie. Sachi, who is easily the most well-defined of the three older sisters, may have a fraught relationship with the pediatrician, but there is a worldliness, almost a contentment, about her acceptance of her fate. (This part is like Yasujiro Ozu lite.) She is, after all, the unstated matriarch of the brood and has her dignity to maintain. 

Kore-eda has a gift for portraying goodness that is quite rare. He does so without a whisper of banality. When Suzu is riding on the back of a boy’s bicycle under a swirl of cherry blossoms, the close-up of her bliss is so joyful it’s practically ecstatic. I like this film much more than his last, the overly schematic melodrama “Like Father, Like Son.” Kore-eda may have moved away from the adventurous, mysterioso moodiness of early films like “After Life,” but the smiles he provokes here – both with his characters and with us – are well-earned. Grade: B+ (Rated PG for thematic elements and brief language.)

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