In a year of nutty omissions to the foreign-language Oscar race, one of the seemingly crazier is Hirokazu Koreeda's "Like Father, Like Son," a film with so much to say about modern parenting that even the most fossilized Academy voter would get it. As with most of Koreeda's films, the treatment is relatively blithe, the subject matter dire (the magnificent "After-Life" of 1998 was about preparing for the hereafter). Here, two boys were switched at birth: The son of an overachieving architect, Ryota, and his wife, Midori (Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono), was given to Yudai and Tukari (Lily Franky, Yoko Maki), a couple who own an appliance store and a far more casual attitude toward life. When the mistake is discovered, the nature-nurture debate is up and running, the jockeys being a pair of 6-year-olds.
We meet the otherwise cute and amiable Keita (Keita Ninomiya) responding robotically to a school admissions officer as Ryota and Midori look on approvingly. Ryota has a deep-seated belief in the importance of bloodlines, so he is invested to an unhealthy degree in Keita's success. When it turns out that the carefree kid who's been raised by carefree parents, Ryusei (Shogen Hwang), is really Ryota's child, his worldview takes a beating.
Putting helicopter parents into a tailspin, "Like Father, Like Son" is another example of Koreeda's facility for blending engaging drama with incipient tragedy -- the boys have to go back to their parents after all; every law of God, man and Japan says they must. The film also shows the director's fascination with the family unit and preoccupation with children on their own -- in "Nobody Knows" (2004), he told the fact-based story of an abandoned quartet of siblings surviving on their own in Tokyo. In "Like Father, Like Son," the statement about solitude is more metaphysical. We are all ultimately on our own, he is saying, regardless of parental ambitions.
PLOT The sons of very different sets of parents turn out to have been switched at birth. Unrated.
CAST Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono
BOTTOM LINE Wry, funny and wise, like most of the work of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda. (In Japanese, with English subtitles)