Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sophie and the Rising Sun: Mixed Romance in 1941

Ralph Carr was not FDR’s favorite governor. The Colorado chief executive was adamantly opposed to the New Deal. He was also the only political leader of any consequence who criticized the Japanese internment policy. Gov. Carr did his best to welcome Japanese-Americans relocated to his state. Perhaps things might have been easier for Sophie Willis and Grover Ohta if they had met in Colorado. Instead, fate brings them together in segregated, true blue democrat Salty Creek, South Carolina, in the Fall of 1941. Interracial romance is strictly taboo in the small town, but the wounded lovers will take their chances in Maggie Greenwald’s Sophie and the Rising Sun (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

During a misadventure in New York, Ohta was badly beaten and deposited in a southbound bus that unceremoniously dumps him out in Salty Creek. Anne Morrison reluctantly agrees to host the mystery man everyone assumes is Chinese during his convalescence, but is delighted to find they share a passion for gardening. It turns out, Ohta also shares a love of painting with Morrison’s socially awkward friend, Sophie Willis. She is still too young to be a proper spinster, but after her fiancé was killed in WWI, her prospects in the narrow-minded and narrow-streeted burg are decidedly limited.

They are probably meant to be together, but Pearl Harbor really throws a spanner in the works. It also inspires another severe beating. Even the tough-talking Morrison wavers in her broad-mindedness, but not Willis. Morrison’s no-nonsense new housekeeper Salome also keeps things in perspective, but Ruth Jeffers, the town’s wildly judgmental busybody is a different story entirely.

Greenwald has such a fine feeling for the era and the setting, you can practically smell palmetto trees and hear crickets chirping. However, the narrative (adapted from Augusta Trobaugh’s novel) is so predictable, beat-by-beat, nothing comes remotely close to surprising even the most distraction-prone viewer. It is a shame Greenwald plays it so agonizingly safe, because the performances of Julianne Nicholson (a survivor of the Osage County horror show) and Takashi Yamaguchi are really quite lovely. Their chemistry is potent yet delicate—and absolutely never forced.

Margo Martindale also gives awards caliber work as Morrison, deftly balancing her down-home flamboyance and gutsy defiance. Lorraine Toussaint nicely handles some pivotal reveals as Salome. Unfortunately, Diane Ladd and the rest of the supporting cast seem to be engaged in a contest to see who can play the most unpalatable, over-the-top Southern stereotype.

Rising looks and sounds great, thanks to Wolfgang Held’s nostalgically evocative cinematography and David Mansfield’s distinctive score. For extra added authenticity (and a rare bit of fun), there is also a swingingly period-appropriate contribution from Vince Giordano. Frustratingly, scene after scene come like totally on-the-nose teachable moments. There is no subtlety, no irony, and no ambiguity. A little bit of one or all three would have greatly deepened its impact. Good looking and well-intentioned, Sophie and the Rising Sun earns a mixed recommendation, primarily for audiences that will respond to its unmistakable message, when it opens tomorrow (1/27) in Los Angeles, at the Laemmle Music Hall.