LONDON - It’s not hard to see why Anthony Chen won the Camera d’Or for best debut feature at Cannes this year, beating such higher-profile candidates as “Fruitvale Station.” Assured, humane delicacy is always an attractive quality to festival juries wary of more swaggering talent, and it’s one his warmly melancholy domestic drama “Ilo Ilo” (unsurprisingly selected as Singapore's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) has in spades. Light on story and heavy on curdled sentiment, this study of a communication-challenged middle-class Singaporean family weathering the country’s 1997 financial crisis – and numerous finer household fractures besides – has immodest formal reach behind its softly-softly approach.

“Has watched a lot of Edward Yang,” I scrawled at one point in my notes, regarding Chen’s still, patiently gazing direction: his canvas may be smaller than those of the prematurely late Taiwanese auteur, but it’s similarly lit and textured, similarly dedicated to the gracious in the everyday. But then, all humanism is appropriated to some extent: sometimes from other artists, more often from unsuspecting ordinary people. “Observational” is a blanket critical term for nice, character-driven films about little in particular, and much in general – though such films don’t always seem to be looking all that intently at their subjects. In its best, hardest moments, “Ilo Ilo” does.

It’s principally a Tamagotchi – tossed rashly from a car window in one of the film’s many instances of casual parental ineptitude – that tips us off to the film’s Nineties setting, since its portrayal of spirit-fraying economic strain should be familiar to more than a few present-day viewers. Mischief-prone pre-teen lad Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) and his parents are scarcely keeping their heads above water: Dad (Chen Tian Wen) has lost his sales job, and daren’t tell his brisk-tempered, heavily pregnant wife (Yeo Yann Yann), whose stressful secretarial position is the family’s chief source of income.

Jiale may not comprehend the specifics of the situation, but he can pick up on his parents’ edgy nerves, which only makes him act out even more brazenly than usual. The family’s barely affordable solution is to hire an au pair from the Philippines – standard practice in Singapore – to keep him in line. Initially, he can scarcely be civil to Terry (the excellent Angeli Bayani), a permissive but proud young woman with parental experience of her own – particularly as the two are rather cruelly forced to share sleeping quarters.  

When the thaw comes, Chen’s spare but porous script is careful not to attribute it to any significant event or realization; rather, this is a love story of getting used to people, then fond, then dependent. The audience scarcely clocks how familial Jaile and Terry’s relationship has grown – she's part guardian to him, part sister – before his ever-more-distant parents, with tacit dismay, do the same.

That’s in large part because Jiale himself is so difficult to read: those accustomed to winsomely precocious child protagonists in such films will be effectively disconcerted by this prickly, inarticulate but encouragingly curious kid. That characterization is one of Chen’s smartest, most surprising moves, raising the stakes of this defiantly small drama: winning Jiale’s affection, and returning it in kind, seems an achievement rather than a narrative requirement. (Much credit must go, of course, to Koh’s exuberant but affectation-free performance.) I only wish Chen had been equally fair in sketching Jaile’s alternately testy and clueless parents; his work-weary, perma-scolding mother, in particular, often takes the brunt of the film’s skepticism about Singaporean middle-class values, but is granted few surges – flickers, even – of unguarded feeling.

“Ilo Ilo” craves such human color: it takes place largely in a plasticine-colored landscape of urban conformity, its drab prefab apartments only occasionally cast in hopeful, pastel-accented daylight by cinematographer Benoit Soler. Chen’s sour-sweet resolution doesn’t do much to mend or brighten the lives of his fragile family: their financial straits are pitted against Terry’s, with Jaile’s newfound sense of security just one potential casualty. Still, there’s a guarded optimism to this hushed, thoughtful miniature, even with our knowledge of the yo-yo economy to come: with lines of conversation splintered open and a baby on the way, things should at least get better before they get worse.