Tender Mercies

Two exceptional new films: Nobody Knows and Assisted Living.

The very young and the very old are heartbreakingly vulnerable in two extraordinary—and extraordinarily different—new movies, Nobody Knows (IFC Films) and Assisted Living (Cowboy Pictures).

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows is based on a true story from the late ‘80s that was dubbed in Japan as “The Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo.” Four children, of different fathers, were left by their mother to fend for themselves for months at a time in a small apartment. The three youngest weren’t allowed to go outside, even to the veranda to do laundry. The smallest two had been smuggled into the building in suitcases—the landlord would never have rented the apartment to a family of five. Whenever the mother took off, the older boy did the shopping and occasionally sought out one of his siblings’ fathers for money. (He never met his own dad.) But none of them went to school. And none knew how to keep house, treat illness or injury, or function as a parent.

Kore-eda’s filmmaking is austere and deliberate, yet his humanism is manifest in every frame. He doesn’t demonize the mother (played by the pop singer known as You), who comes off less as a monster than a narcissistic child-woman. Perhaps it’s this refusal to jerk the audience around that makes Nobody Knows one of the most painful films I’ve seen. I don’t know if it’s quite as tortuous for people without small children. It might be. But whatever it is that hardwires a parent to wake up instantly when a child cries out in the night makes it a living hell to watch four kids slowly starve from neglect.

What eats into your mind are the small, quiet moments. The oldest, Akira (Yûya Yagira), sits on a train, softly stroking the suitcase that (you later discover) holds little Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), his sister. The children watch from the window as their mother leaves, supposedly for work, more likely for a date with some relatively well-off suitor. They watch her sadly, in silence, until she’s out of sight. For much of the film, they gaze at the world through windows or fences, sometimes at other kids, sometimes at trains heading for the airport and points unknown.

Akira often plays on a long, straight, stone staircase, split by a railing, that leads to his neighborhood. The image suggests the impassiveness of the city (and the universe), but it’s also a neat place to hang out. It reminds you that kids are adaptable—within reason. They can have a blast with so little: dolls, crayons, a rubber ball, the game rock-paper-scissors. In one shot, you see the overdue gas bill, and it has lovely, childish doodles all over it. Akira haunts the schoolyard and makes friends with a kind teenager (an outcast herself) and with boys his own age. The boys exploit him and take advantage of his dwindling supply of cash, but he’s so hungry for social contact—sports, video games, and general mischief, including shoplifting—that he doesn’t seem to mind.

There are overwhelming shots of the children hugging, caressing, and taking care of one another, and yet this motherless, fatherless family is bereft. The kids have no way of making sense of what they’re going through or of a world that doesn’t register their existence. The youngest don’t even know enough to be angry. Akira knows he should go to the police, but that would mean being separated from his siblings, a thought he can’t bear. They’re all he has. In a shop with his mother, before her longest absence, he blurts out that she’s selfish, and she silences him by asking, “I’m not allowed to be happy?”

Movies—especially movies aimed at the youth market—often depict parents as clueless or repressive, or as obstacles to their children’s creativity. But Nobody Knows suggests that even the worst parent in the world is not only essential for survival but also a sense of self.

The performances of the children—Yagira won the best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival—are beyond praise; you never register that they’re actors. I’m only sorry that my view of the singer You is warped by her role as mother. Kore-eda doesn’t tell us what happened to the real mother—or to anyone else. He doesn’t soften the blow by ending with the outrage of the country when the children’s situation became known. There is no release. Increasingly intemperate in my middle age, I’d like to have seen footage of the actual mother being tossed into a dungeon. But Nobody Knows is so pure and universal that such a thought makes me feel unclean.

There’s more sentiment in Elliot Greenebaum’s Assisted Living, which is, by comparison, a pretty straightforward conversion narrative. But it has an edge. The protagonist, Todd (Michael Bonsignore), works as a janitor in a home for the elderly. He smokes a joint in the car on his way to work and occasionally slips out of the building for more hits. He shows up late and clowns around with wheelchairs. He doesn’t give a damn about anything. But on this day, when he’s asked to help restrain a semidelusional but brokenhearted old woman named Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley), the institution’s indifference begins to gnaw at him.

What gives Assisted Living its power is that the film was shot in a real home for the aged, and the patients—with the exception of Riley’s Mrs. Pearlman—are genuine. For the first half-hour, I was uncomfortable with that mix—especially since the movie also features broad, fake interviews (as in TV’s The Office) with smug, self-involved administrators. I wondered if the old women, with their thin shocks of hair and sad, wrinkled faces, weren’t being exploited. I still wonder. It’s a hard call, and I wish that Greenebaum—who often lingers on the women’s swollen feet and withered hands—had found more variety and moments of pleasure in the residents’ lives. But his point, of course, is that their lives don’t have much variety or pleasure. And as the mixture of documentary and fiction becomes smoother, you find yourself sharing the director’s—and the protagonist’s—sense of helplessness.

Somehow, Assisted Living jells. Maggie Riley is astoundingly convincing, and she and Bonsignore’s Todd have an unforced chemistry that catches you off guard. In the film’s most powerful and sustained sequence, Mrs. Pearlman cheats at bingo and wins an oversized pair of cheap sunglasses. As the other patients protest and the caregiver tries to calm them down, Mrs. Pearlman announces that her son in Australia needs those glasses and that she needs to phone him and tell him to come and get them—and also to get her, because, she weeps, it’s a mistake that she’s there. She cannot take it anymore. Todd uses various stratagems to console her, but there is no consolation, really. The nurse at the desk has a beautiful little daughter who watches in silence as her mother has to wrestle with the old woman to sedate her. As Todd wheels her off to the “mad ward,” you can hear the strains of “Blue Skies” from the piano in rec room: “Never saw the sun shining so bright … ”

Assisted Living has a happy ending, of sorts—the same kind of happy ending as the unbearably tragic Nobody Knows: a tiny moment of human interaction, the tenderest mercy in an indifferent universe.