While his work with children remains as impeccable as always, Hirokazu Kore-eda proves considerably less successful in dealing with the adult characters in his latest film, I Wish. Which is to say that it isn't Still Walking, the director's masterful 2008 offering in which each situation was filled with essential detail, each character handled with genuine understanding. But while the focus of the Japanese filmmaker's latest remains on its pair of pre-teen protags—brothers living in different cities after their parents' separation—and their friends, it too often tries to flesh out its canvas with quick-sketch portraits of the older generation that feel too underthought to really register.
A slight but appealing tale of youthful pluck, optimism, and coming to terms with the realities of the world, I Wish revolves around the myth that anyone who sees two bullet trains pass at a specific location can make a wish and have a single “miracle” brought to life for them. Leisurely establishing its setting and characters (again the only ones who really register are the brothers whose constant cellphone conversations are sweet without being cloying), the film eventually moves onward toward action as both boys and their coterie of friends skip school and arrange a trip to the meeting point.
While the film's deliberate pace initially feels like an asset, a chance to luxuriate in the film's twinned settings, it quickly becomes apparent that the movie's sketch-like quality renders the establishing sequences more overly elongated than revealing. Apart from scenes of the kids hanging out or trying to raise money for their trip, it's mostly quick-shot detail for the sake of having something to fill in the longueurs. Things become more interesting when the two groups set out on their trip, largely because Kore-eda takes such pleasure in framing the kids against the changing landscape, but also because the reunion between the two brothers is handled with equal parts joyousness and delicacy.
Ultimately a film about children accepting adult reality (in this it recalls Kore-eda's masterpiece, Nobody Knows), I Wish centers on the brothers' desire for their family to reunite, the ostensible subject of each boys' desired miracle. But as a flashback triggered by the more grounded brother's recollections of marital discord makes clear, sometimes what seems ideal in the fantasies of young children isn't the best option in actual life. At these moments, the film reveals a profundity and a finely measured understanding of that thorny place where youthful naïveté runs into adult truths that belie the film's laid-back, playful tone. For the rest, it's a good-natured, occasionally engaging piece of work that stretches its canvas far too wide only to leave too many patches virtually blank.
Film Comment Selects 2012 runs from February 17—March 1.