A quietly meandering film about a Japanese brother and sister traveling through the southwest, Littlerock, named for the town in which the duo are stranded, plays at subtlety and heavy handedness in equal measure. Currently doing fest rounds (seen by this critic at San Francisco International Film Festival) it's a title worthy of distribution but highly niche.
Atsuko (co-writer Atsuko Okatsuka) and her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) are travelling through the American Southwest with the loose destination of reaching Manzanar. What's in Manzanar is never spoken but it's one of three towns the siblings plan to see on their fairly unstructured trip. Due to a car break down, they're stuck in Littlerock, CA. It's a nowhere town full of partial desert and the occasional, graffiti-ed convenience store. While resting in their motel room they hear a party and Rintaro, who's English is stronger than Atsuko's, goes next door to ask for some quiet. There he finds a handful of kids in their early twenties drinking cheap beer and grappling with social interaction. The conversations are as needy as they are volatile, which is funny because Rintaro can't understand much and Atsuko can't understand a word-what clear to them both is that all the boys in town are interested in Atsuko. She's cute, even if she's silent. A handful of boys vie for her attentions and she enjoys their interest and lets them take her around "town" on their bikes. She has a dalliance with one, a less than reliable sort she treats too seriously, and temporarily lives with the outcast of the group when Rintaro decides to follow a previously established plan to see San Francisco. Cory (Cory Zacharia) is a social butterfly but skates on his outsider status in the small clutch of semi-masculine guys who beat their chests and sell pot. He's part of the group by virtue of the fact the group hates him, but he's at all the parties. He makes misguided passes at Atsuko mostly in the interest of keeping her near. The psychology is transparent if not at all predictable. When Rintaro returns from San Francisco, he removes Atsuko from Littlerock and it's like he's liberating her from an accidental prison. After Atsuko's cultural exclusion ends, Rintaro takes her to a museum commemorating the Japanese Interment during WWII. This is where the meandering tone butts heads with the film's softly structured message.
The visit to the internment museum at Manzanar is a surprise of sorts, probably because these kids seem so unguided that the idea they're seeking their ethnic history is almost confusing. It also seems heavy handed. Atsuko doesn't relate to her ethnicity in any explicit way but her status as a non-English speaker among English speakers is perfectly foreground-the fact she befriends an outsider is, of course, pointing at otherness. What's interesting about this look at the idea of nativeness and otherness is how unformed it seems, which is conceivably the most purposeful thing about Littlerock. Outside of mandated disasters like the Internment Camps, exclusion isn't an experience commonly bound by social or institutional structures-well, anymore-today it's an experience that happens in softer exchanges so it's harder to identify or wrap your head around. In Littlerock, otherness is explored in a way that feels almost accidental, as if it's our tendency to exclude and that's somehow a neutral, non-violent, human imperative. If this is true who's on the outside is arbitrary, and boy does that add insult to injury.
The message is nearly as slight as the presentation and just as hard to pin down, but even when tackling something as sharp edged and soft bellied as exclusion Littlerock is not without its pleasures.
Cast: Atsuko Okatsuka, Cory Zacharia, Rintaro Sawamoto and Roberto Sanchez
Director: Mike Ott
Screenwriter: Mike Ott, Atsuko Okatsuka and Carl McLaughlin
Producer: Sierra Leoni, Frederick Fulton and Henry Thornton
Running time: 84 min.
Release date: August 12 ltd.