AFI Fest 2012
By Don Simpson | November 4, 2012
Director: Mike Ott
Writers: Mike Ott, Atsuko Okatsuka
Starring: Atsuko Okatsuka, Cory Zacharia, John Brotherton, Stephen Tobolowsky, Mio Takada, Sumiko Muto
Like Littlerock, writer-director Mike Ott’s previous film, Pearblossum Hwy focuses on twentysomethings who are unwillingly stuck living in a secluded California desert town. Economic limitations weigh heavily upon their situations because without decent employment opportunities they cannot afford to move elsewhere. Besides, no matter how much they hate it, this is where their only family roots are grounded…
Anna (Atsuko Okatsuka) lives with her aunt (Sumiko Muto) and uncle (Mio Takada). They are traditional Japanese adults who stress the importance of studying and working hard. Anna is preparing to take the U.S. citizen exam and she works at uncle’s nursery, but her first priority is raising enough money to visit her ailing grandmother in Japan. We can only assume that the paychecks from the nursery are not enough to cover Anna’s airfare to Japan, so it comes as no surprise when her other occupation is revealed. Anna hates her current predicament and loves her grandmother so much that she will forego her chance at becoming a U.S. citizen, as well as sacrifice her body, in order to return to Japan. Sure, Anna’s aunt and uncle are probably quite content with their lives in the U.S., but this podunk town is no place for young people like Anna.
Cory (Cory Zacharia) believes his only chance at escaping will come if he is cast on The Young Life, a reality television show. A self-proclaimed rebel without a cause, Cory preaches a gospel of non-conformity and anarchy as lead singer of a heavy metal band. He aspires to become a film star or a rock star, but his fractured family life has rendered him a fuck up, at least according to his patronizing Marine brother (John Brotherton). Cory has no job and he never went to college. He says that he wants to turn his life around, but until he can figure out a way to do that, Cory relies upon his video camera as a way to vocalize his feelings.
It seems logical that Anna and Cory have become best friends because of their shared hatred for their hometown. They are both trapped in a version of America that does not live up to their dreams. (Then again, aren’t most of us?) A road trip presents San Francisco as a possible promised land, but how can either of them afford to live there?
There is a recurring sound that occurs during several brief montage segments; it is a familiar sound, but I have yet to nail down exactly what it is. At first I thought it sounded like a car with a dead alternator, which is fitting considering that Anna and Cory cannot get their lives started. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that was wrong. So, instead, I have narrowed it down to either being the sound of a Polaroid camera or a slide projector. Pearblossom Hwy does certainly have the feeling of a photo essay, so I guess that association seems to make sense now.
Ott has found two muses in Atsuko Okatsuka and Cory Zacharia — and what amazing muses they are! One could easily film a million miles of celluloid about the characters that these two actors are able to naturally inhabit. They might have polar opposite approaches to acting — Cory tends to play characters who are very clearly performing for the camera, while Atsuka acts with such subtlety that it is as if the camera is nonexistent — but their performances are saturated with authenticity.
At this point, I think Ott is one the most fascinating young American filmmakers. He has a simple, yet unique approach to filmmaking that hinges heavily upon the tenants of neo-realism and non-fiction filmmaking. As I mentioned an the onset of this review, Pearblossom Hwy echoes many of the same sentiments as Littlerock, but that is not such a bad thing. Ott simplifies and streamlines what he did with Littlerock, creating a new film that is both more mature and meaningful. Ott is clearly still growing as a filmmaker, but I sense that he has truly hit his stride with Pearblossom Hwy.