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Tourists Find Unlikely Destination In ‘Littlerock’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 11, 2011

A lilting melancholy pervades Littlerock, Mike Ott’s gentle fish-out-of-water tale of accidental tourists and unexpected connections.

When their rental car breaks down in the Southern California desert, Japanese siblings Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) and his shy sister, Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka, who collaborated with Ott on the story), are stranded in the tiny town of Littlerock. Waiting for a replacement vehicle, the pair hook up with a ragtag band of local slackers whose embrace of the strangers is as casual as their post-high school, pre-nothing-very-much lifestyle. But while smoking weed and shot-gunning beers earns only disdain from Rintaro, his sister feels strangely drawn to her new acquaintances. So when Rintaro heads to San Francisco for a few days — taking his English-speaking skills and the film’s subtitles with him — Atsuko remains behind.

Leaving Atsuko with no English, and the audience with no knowledge of what she is saying, is a bold and brilliant move on the part of the filmmakers, one that both increases our concern for her safety and, ironically, her new friends’ protectiveness. Soon she’s juggling the attentions of two very different young men: Cory (Cory Zacharia), a self-deluded aspiring actor and model who grudgingly tends his father’s roadside burrito shack, and Jordan (Brett L. Tinnes), a languid musician who does little but sleep, strum and smoke.

Made on a microbudget with a nonprofessional cast, Littlerock picks at more than just otherness and the ease (or unease) of assimilation. Shots across the bow of small-town America — the lack of opportunity and the reliability of bigotry — land with more regularity than subtlety, but Ott and his crew are going for something deeper than wasted youth. By confronting Atsuko with the baffling riddle of directionless lives, the film exposes not only the limitations of language but the deceptiveness of nonverbal clues. To Atsuko, this Littlerock — so different from the America her father has described — is a puzzle she needs to solve.

Shot by Carl McLaughlin with an almost becalmed dreaminess, the rocky desert and tangerine sunsets frame Atsuko’s journey with a hazy beauty. But what lends the film its fragile, tentative tone is Okatsuka’s beguilingly open performance. Sitting among her new friends in uncomprehending serenity, bonding with Cory’s light-fingered Mexican cook (a perfect Roberto Sanchez), or spending the night with Jordan in companionable near-silence, Atsuko finds connections free of the complications that dog her correspondence with her father. Voiceovers of her postcards home are filled with white lies, and remarks to her brother suggest that their trip has caused a deeper family rift.

Not until the film’s surprisingly touching finale do we learn the source of that friction, in a delicately handled sequence that retroactively floods the story with satisfying context. From the beginning, we have felt that Atsuko was figuring something out; by the end, we know exactly what that was. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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