AFI Fest 2010
By Don Simpson | November 26, 2010
Director: Mike Ott
Writer(s): Mike Ott, Atsuko Okatsuka, Carl McLaughlin
Starring: Atsuko Okatsuka, Cory Zacharia, Rintaro Sawamoto, Roberto ‘Sanz’ Sanchez
Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) and her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) find themselves stranded in Littlerock (California, not Arkansas) — a small, in the middle of nowhere, desert town along the Pear Blossom highway — after their rental car breaks down. Visiting the United States from Japan for their first time, they are on their way to a visit to Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp, where their grandfather was imprisoned during World War II. Atsuko can neither speak nor understand English and Rintaro’s knowledge of English is shaky at best, barely enough to get them by. Language barriers, however, do not stop them from befriending the local crowd of slackers and hooligans — you know the kind, bored young adults with nothing to do except drink beer and smoke pot and hang out and ride bicycles.
Atsuko and Rintaro’s first friend is Cory (Cory Zacharia), an aspiring model and actor who daydreams of escaping Littlerock to commence a brilliant new life in Los Angeles. Cory is almost too friendly and too much of a gentle soul. (Maybe that is why Cory seems to be the butt of the town’s jokes, even his father teases him about acting gay.) Cory is a bizarre, paradoxical character: naive yet cunning, generous yet self-absorbed. Cory is also rather clueless, totally unable to fathom the possible consequences of what the local drug supplier might do to him if he does not repay his debt.
Once their rental car is fixed, Rintaro is ready to continue on with their original plan to travel to San Francisco then Manzanar, but Atsuko is beginning to like Littlerock (and what is not to like about drinking beer, smoking pot and riding bikes all day?) and wants to stay to learn more about its carefree and eccentric inhabitants. Atsuko is enamored by the perceived freedom of Littlerock’s young folks whose dazed and confused lifestyles seem to only depend upon finding out where the next party is. Atsuko has fallen in love with this strange [per]version of the American dream (and there is at least one cute boy she would not mind smooching). Rintaro soldiers onward; Atsuko stays in Littlerock. Cory — whom Atsuko is able to accept at face value since his kind and genteel nature transcends all language — gives Atsuko a place to sleep and a job at his father’s burrito joint.
A stranger in a strange land (or paradise?), left with no means to communicate with the world around her, Atsuko becomes our doe-eyed quiet observer, our vessel to absorb and reflect the images that surround her (not unlike Thomas in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Chance in Being There, or Charlotte in Lost in Translation). She can only communicate via facial expressions and gestures — Cory and Jordan (Brett L. Tinnes), the local hipster heartthrob, pick-up on this rather quickly in their attempts to woo the über-cute Atsuko. We quickly learn just how much can be conveyed without an understanding of a language; nonetheless the characters never give up on trying to communicate verbally in their native tongues in the hopes that certain intonations and inflections will help convey their message. Atsuko appears to be exploding with things that she is dying to say, but she is lucky if 10% of her intended message ever reaches her audience. There are no subtitles in the Littlerock (except when Atsuko and Rintaro are speaking to one another in Japanese); so, unless you understand Japanese, you too will have to learn to understand Atsuko via her blinks, nods, intense gaze and body language.
The only person with whom Atsuko seems to find true friendship with is Francisco (Roberto “Sanz” Sanchez), the cook at the burrito joint who only speaks Spanish. Francisco and Atsuko find camaraderie in being alienated by language in this foreign place. Their distinct ethnicities classify them as “others” here (depending on who you are listening to from Littlerock, blacks might be classified as “others” too). Since they both comprehend each other’s predicament, they are able to communicate a little more easily with each other.
Atsuko then gets a completely different perspective of the United States when she and Rintaro finally arrive at Manzanar — where over 110,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II. As Atsuko and Rintaro take in the dark history, they are finally able to place their identities in this foreign land. The U.S. may seem laid-back and accommodating to Atsuko and Rintaro nowadays, but just look at how the U.S. treated their ancestors (U.S. citizens no less!) during World War II.
With Littlerock, Mike Ott paints what most Americans would see as an unsightly locale as a beautiful and magical one (as if through the eyes of Atsuko) — poetic slow-motion bike rides, transfixing images of the desert from moving cars, beautiful landscapes enveloped in luscious sunshine, even the most dilapidated buildings and trailer homes are portrayed in the most romantic perspective available — and all of this imagery mashes brilliantly to the psych-folkish tunes of The Cave Singers. (There is also a great use of a track by The Fall.)
Ott clearly reveals an affection for these characters and their small-town ways, but we also glimpse that there is a downside to all of this — Littlerock is not as idyllic as it seems. This is a place (like so many other small U.S. towns) that time and the economy has long forgotten. Atsuko and Rintaro only need for their rental car to be repaired in order to leave Littlerock, but for most of the youth in this film, escape is a nearly impossible pipe dream. (Their constant drinking and pot smoking is most likely a way — conscious or not — to ignore their dire destinies.) Ott, purposefully or not, creates a deeply unsettling air in which we might expect something horrible to happen to Atsuko. She seems so lost and fragile and in this backwards place that is over-saturated with drunk, drugged-out and hormonal young men, how could something not happen to Atsuko? Well, do not worry, that is not that story that Ott wants to tell…
Littlerock won the 2010 AFI Fest Audience Award in the Young Americans category (which is even more impressive when you consider its tough competition: The Myth of the American Sleepover, Putty Hill and Two Gates of Sleep).