If familiarity breeds contempt, then it’s no wonder that it takes a Japanese tourist to find the romanticism in a no-bit dusty town like Littlerock, CA. It certainly wasn’t on the destination checklist for Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) and her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto), but one broken-down car and accidental party-crashing night later, the siblings find themselves enmeshed in a unique culture of distinctive pursuits. Which is to say: walking on train tracks, drinking in abandoned houses, and doing little else. Rintaro tires quickly of the scene, but Atsuko grows ever more intrigued despite knowing absolutely no English.
The prospect of not understanding a word of the language around you is terrifying, but director Mike Ott reverses that notion, turning it into the best thing that could happen to a place like Littlerock. Atsuko, played by Atsuko Okatsuka with a stillness that never lacks an underlying charge, taps into the soothing hum of small-town life that banal words and exchanges obstruct. Her gaze is the audience’s gaze, which, as an outsider, sees Littlerock as a perfect slice of the West, and its brand of Americana as all denim, plaid, and backyard parties. Littlerock and its English-speaking inhabitants give Atsuko respite from the gray lies she’s cornered into saying, whether it’s a letter to her father (read in voiceover) that she and her brother are getting along great—they’re not—or telling Rintaro she slept at a girlfriend’s house when she really spent the night with a guy.
It’s a lovely straight performance that counterbalances nicely with that of Cory Zacharia, who plays the goofy aspiring model, Cory, who gets the second most screen-time. Cory is a silly guy who takes himself very seriously; ready to do his model walk at the drop of a hat, he makes it his responsibility and duty to take care of Atsuko during her stay. He’s also a character that would be almost unavoidably annoying were he not so self-conscious, making for a mixture surprisingly devoid of caricature.
The same is true for the film as a whole (save for a tangential plot misstep with a local bruiser). For the most part, Mike Ott captures a delicate mood, bottling the fleeting affection Atsuko feels for Littlerock and its peculiar slacker inhabitants. It’s not a place you want to spend the rest of your life, but it’s a welcome diversion to an off-roads America.
Littlerock opens today at Cinema Village.