In recent years, the humble art of knitting has acquired an increasingly young, hip following for its supposedly therapeutic benefits — and finally has a film to show for it in “Close-Knit.” That’s not to trivialize the wider social issues of Naoko Ogigami’s gentle, sweet-souled celebration of alternative family structures, in which a maternally neglected young girl finds security in the care of her uncle and his transgender partner. But the knitting motif is one the film returns to repeatedly as a bonding metaphor, and one that’s wholly indicative of its snuggly feel-good appeal: This is a warm, practical, pastel-shaded cardigan of a film, even if, at over two hours, it gets a bit droopy in the sleeves. Some light cutting might make “Close-Knit” an even comfier fit for international distributors, particularly those specializing in LGBT fare.
Premiering in Berlin’s Panorama sidebar, where it has been overshadowed in conversation by Sebastian Lelio’s trans-themed Competition entry “A Fantastic Woman,” “Close-Knit” further demonstrates the growing prominence and broader acceptance of transgender narratives in the arthouse. Reminiscent of Hirokazu Koreeda at his most crowd-pleasing, the film should play without hindrance to a general audience in its emotional appeal. But that’s not to deny the quiet candor with which Ogigama explores alternative sexual and gender identities — particularly as viewed through the inquisitive eyes of 11-year-old Tomo, who’s of the age where a man choosing to become a woman can seem intriguingly novel and, at the same time, no big deal. (With a child’s lack of modesty, Tomo is cheerfully unafraid to ask what happens to the penis in a male-to-female sex-change operation — which is more than some coy filmmakers addressing the subject have done.)
Winningly but not too cutely played Rinka Kakihara, Tomo has had to grow up a little faster than her peers, thanks to the fecklessness of her mother (Mimura), an overgrown adolescent who thinks nothing of disappearing on a whim for days on end. Tomo has long counted on her kindly uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani) to take her in during such benders, but is surprised to find the domestic order changed: Makio’s new girlfriend Rinko (Toma Ikuta) has moved in with him and is, as he puts it, “unusual.” A tall, soft-spoken care nurse with a heart as big as her self-admittedly mannish hands, Rinko gradually wins over the guarded youngster with tender affection, straight talk and a nifty way with a panda-modeled bento box. (“Close-Knit” is not to be viewed on an empty stomach; much key dramatic interaction takes place around lovingly prepared meals.) Before long, the three are sharing secrets, cycling down idyllic avenues of cherry blossom and collaborating on an eccentric knitting project that, well, weaves them neatly together.
Thus does a new, unconventional family unit takes shape, with Rinko as the doting mother Tomo has never had. Ogigama’s script resists quite such a cozy conclusion, however, as a family history of troubled maternal relationships is untangled ahead of a more complicated final act. If anyone gets a hard time in this generally benevolent film, it’s cisgender women, who fill a prejudiced, antagonistic position in more than one household here. Rinko, meanwhile, is ceaselessly patient and thoughtful, not to mention an immaculate domestic goddess in spotless twinsets; one wishes at points that Ogigama had written a few more creases into her character, though Ikuta’s performance deftly alludes to the insecurities of her past.
Such lapses in detail notwithstanding, this is a nuanced, softly lit family portrait, with compassion and conflict held carefully in balance. If anything, it could be a shade too considered: At 128 minutes, the dimensions of this intimate story are eventually tested as much as those of Makio’s bijou studio-turned-family-apartment. Naoko Eto’s thick, kuromitsu-drenched score could also exercise a bit more restraint, though the springtime airiness of Kozo Sibasaki’s cinematography is perfectly in line with the film’s most delicate instincts.