What a kind and wise movie this is. Hirokazu Kore-eda's "I Wish" is a warm, humanistic story of Japanese schoolchildren, their parents and grandparents, and the hopeful dreams that sustain them. Though they have been living apart for months following their parents' divorce, grade-schoolers Koichi and Ryu (played delightfully by real-life brothers Koki and Ohshiro Maeda) keep in touch with regular phone calls.
Koichi, who is grave and lonely, lives with Mom and her folks in southern Kyushu, near a fitfully slumbering volcano. His irrepressible little brother lives in the north, with Dad and his layabout bandmates. When Dad's group is signed by an alternative label, Ryu asks, "What does indie mean?" Koichi replies, "I think it means you have to try harder."
Koichi believes a classmate's tale that anyone who makes a wish at the point where the island's north and south bullet trains cross will have his wish granted. Clearly, this would cause his parents to resolve their differences and reunite the family. He brings Ryu in on the scheme, and each boy organizes a team of young co-conspirators to arrange train tickets and school absences. The caper unfolds like a half-pint road movie.
Kore-eda avoids the cloying characters and patronizing tone that mar most Hollywood films about children. He presents his young characters as partially formed individuals. You can see that Koichi is going to grow up a little glum like his mom, and Ryu, who travels with a pack of pretty, supportive older girls, will be a lady-killing scamp like Dad.
Nor does the director make straw-man villains of the adults. They are sustained by wistful wishes just like the kids -- Grandpa dreams of reopening his shop to sell an old-fashioned rice-cake dessert -- and grown-up strangers treat the children with heartwarming kindness.
The brothers and their cronies react to their journey's challenges with confusion and some fear, but ultimately with courage and good cheer. Like the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazake ("Spirited Away"), Kore-eda believes that benevolent forces protect innocent children. That may be a fairy tale, but properly told it's a lovely one.