When I was a student teacher at an elementary school in Livonia, Michigan, I saw some things that shocked me. Once I watched a male teacher grabbing a disruptive fourth-grader by the neck and forcing his head toward the floor, while pouring out a stream of sarcastic abuse upon him.

The scariest thing, though, was that after a few practice lessons I started to understand how that teacher felt — assuming he shared my gut-clenching terror of losing control of the class. (Probably not a valid assumption; he rather enjoyed bullying the kids.)

This dilemma and others test a well-meaning first-year teacher in Mipo Oh’s “Kimi wa Iiko” (“Being Good”), the worthy, more populist follow-up to her dark, award-showered drama “Soko Nomi Nite Hikari Kagayaku” (“The Light Shines Only There”), released in 2014.

Being Good (Kimi wa Iiko)
Run Time 121 mins
Language Japanese
Opens June 27

Selected for the upcoming Moscow International Film Festival’s competition, “Being Good” does not follow the inspirational arc of the “idealistic teacher in a tough classroom” genre. In fact, for much of the film the teacher, Okano (Kengo Kora), is not in the frame, though his story is at the heart of the narrative.

Based on Hatsue Nakawaki’s eponymous novel, “Being Good” paints a group portrait of isolated people, young and old, caught in downward spirals — with some chancing upon possible ways out.

An elderly woman (Michie Kita) is caught shoplifting at a local supermarket, but it soon becomes apparent that she is suffering from mild dementia. Then she befriends an autistic boy (Amon Kabe) whose frazzled mother (Yasuko Tomita) goes through life apologizing for her son’s existence.

A single mother, Masami (Machiko Ono), who was physically abused as a child, abuses her own 3-year-old daughter and feels guilty as she watches a cheery mom (Chizuru Ikewaki) laugh away the naughty behavior of her rambunctious son at a neighborhood park. The two women become friends, though Masami doesn’t really see what they have in common beyond their kids.

It’s not clear how the lives of these characters will intertwine, but as their stories unfold on parallel tracks the plot begins to matter less than their individual journeys. Some need more help than others. And some may never make it.

They are familiar types, but come with a shading and depth that makes them distinctive and sympathetic — even the ones who seem to be monsters. In the scenes of Masami abusing her daughter, we see the blows and hear the screams, but the camera is at an objective distance and the cinematography — shaded in neutral blues and grays — suggests a pain both shared and inflicted.

Meanwhile, Okano finds himself embroiled in one classroom crisis after another: From a nervous boy who wets himself rather than ask for permission to use the restroom to a shy girl who becomes the target of cruel teasing. Okano’s attempts to solve these crises (and buy himself some peace) backfire rather spectacularly, however, and he is wallowing in self-pity when the young son of his frank-talking sister (Chika Uchida) comforts him in a way I won’t describe — only to say that it warms his heart and switches on a light in his head.

In the midst of his professional troubles, Okano tries to help a boy in his class who is being beaten by his loutish father (Ryota Matsushima), but is afraid to open up — and the school authorities are afraid to act. Solving this problem, Okano realizes, will require not just good intentions, but courage.

This suggests a big feel-good climax, but the film hits its strongest, most moving notes in earlier moments of human connection that seem impossible — until they aren’t.

In this film, miracles are everyday acts of simple — not random — kindness. I want to believe.

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