★★ / ★★★★
Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) and Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka), siblings, decide to go on a two-week trip to America despite their father’s disapproval. With a few more days left before they must go back to Japan, their vehicle breaks down and they find themselves stuck in Littlerock, a small town in the county of Los Angeles. Their plan is to go to San Francisco for some fun and then head to Manzanar, a camp where thousands of Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II. After partying with some Americans, however, Atsuko, who neither speaks nor understands a word of English, decides to stay while her brother heads to the Bay Area.
“Littlerock,” directed by Mike Ott, is deceptively simple because of the way it is shot, but it has something important to say about the westernization of international visitors who wish to experience the American lifestyle and the attitudes toward those who are considered alien. Because its ideas are ambitious, a complex characterization of its lead characters is necessary to unearth and highlight the messages it wishes to convey. But since the film lacks fleshing out of its main players, there is plenty of set-up but no defining punch.
Atsuko and Rintaro meet a man named Cory (Cory Zacharia) at a party in a motel. Cory is a colorful person, to say the least, and is friendly enough to show them around town so they welcome his generosity. While it is inevitable that some may consider him verging on annoying, I liked him because his energy sets fire on the mundane. Without his cooky personality, the screenplay would have been a bore. Notice that he is the only one to talk about his dreams, no matter how ridiculous they may sound.
Much of the humor in the film depends on the things Cory says or does like his consideration of perhaps pursuing a modeling career. We are able to laugh at him but we do not make fun because there is a sincerity behind his words. Meanwhile, there is a layer of seriousness that runs through the slow days because Cory owes Brody (Ryan Dillon) some money. Cory is pushed around and somehow buys more time but he knows there is no way he can pay the collector. The constant threat of violence creates some level of suspense. This makes Cory the most interesting character of the bunch, not the siblings.
The Japanese siblings are appropriately treated like visitors. They observe more than they speak. When they interact, they interact minimally. I related a lot with how they must have felt because when I had recently moved to America and did not know much English, my thoughts were rarely verbalized. It was a constant struggle to express not only an idea but also the implications that come with them. You are imprisoned in your own body when you are supposedly in the land of the free.
The best parts of “Littlerock,” written by Mike Ott, Atsuko Okatsuka, and Carl Bird McLaughlin, is when two people try to decipher what the other person is saying. There is a rhythm in these scenes: the camera up close in order to capture the confusion in the characters’ eyes, the dialogue punctuated by silences, and the eventual act of losing the enthusiasm to express an idea that was exciting ten seconds ago. Nevertheless, not all of these scenes work. Atsuko, especially, is somewhat bland. Okatsuka is good at looking sad but perhaps a few carefully placed internal monologues might have given her character a bit of life.