Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lost Without Translation: Littlerock

Atsuko Sakamoto is not your stereotypical tourist. She records her travels in a sketchpad rather than with a camera. She also speaks absolutely no English, yet there are plenty of polite young chaps willing to show her the sights, such as they are in Mike Ott’s Littlerock (trailer here), the winner of the 2010 “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You” Gotham Independent Film Award, which opens this Friday in New York (but does that mean they have to vacate their title?)

Sakamoto and her brother Rintaro decided to drive across America as a means of renewing their relationship. It was not working fantastically well even before their rental conked out in Littlerock, California. Basically cooling their heels waiting for a replacement to be delivered, they fall in with some of the local aimless youth. Rintaro speaks a spot of English and is a decent drinker, but it is Atsuko everyone is interested in, not surprisingly. She enjoys their company too, deciding to stay on while her brother continues on his way to San Francisco (much to his annoyance), setting in motion a brief but bittersweet love triangle.

For Littlerock’s third act, the Sakamoto siblings reunite, visiting the Manzanar, one of FDR’s relocation camps for Japanese citizens, where their grandfather was interned (a policy criticized by many Americans, like the Republican governor of Colorado, Ralph Lawrence Carr). Clearly, Ott intends their tour to be an emotional capstone that both undercuts and underscores Sakamoto’s good and bad experiences in Littlerock. While there is nothing but love for the people of Japan here, this heavy-handed moralizing only goes so far, particularly in light of the country’s continuing reluctance to come to terms with their own wartime record, as Li Ying’s Yasukuni clearly documents.

Still, at least Littlerock is actually headed somewhere, unlike much of the mumblecore it is not so distantly related to. Whether improvised or on the printed page of Ott’s screenplay, there are also some credibly pointed lines to be heard throughout the film. Cinematographer Carl McLaughlin gives it all an appropriately warm and hazy look, like a happily mild trip for the Easy Rider cats. However, Littlerock’s ace card is undeniably Atsuko Okatsuka’s luminous presence. Indeed, her performance as Sakamoto is realistically grounded and strikingly vulnerable.

Much like its titular laidback small town, Littlerock sort of lulls viewers with its lazy rhythms. There are better films awaiting distribution opportunities, but the eerily expressive Okatsuka earns it a mild recommendation. Essentially cinematic comfort food for hipsters, right down to the final serving of American guilt, Littlerock opens tomorrow (8/12) at the Cinema Village.