A Japanese brother and sister’s car break down in the desert on their tour of the American west. Her name is Atsuko and she speaks no English. His name is Rintaro and he speaks a little. In the town of Littlerock, California, Atsuko falls in with a bunch of layabouts she relates to but cannot speak to; a peculiar premise to director Mike Ott’s evocative new movie “Littlerock.”

Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) and Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) crash a party in a motel room where they befriend Cory (Cory Zacharia) who wants to be a model or an actor, but perhaps too effeminate to have friends in a town like Littlerock. As he introduces Atsuko around, the local guys are intrigued, telling her how pretty she is while she stares dumbly back at them. This disconnect emphasizes the vulnerability of Atsuko and Rintaro, strangers to the ways of small town America.

 

littlerock

A brother and sister from Japan are traveling across California when their car breaks down.

But Atsuko is leered at and left alone. When Cory runs afoul of a local drug dealer, menace hangs in the air around the oblivious Atsuko and later when Jordan, a local boy, takes her on a bike date, Cory tags along to keep an eye on things. But when he is called away and Jordan has Atsuko alone in an abandoned house, well, Atsuko finds a lover not a rapist. Rintaro leaves her behind to stay a few days with Cory who has developed a crush on her. There seems to be an unformed threat forming around the girl but nothing much happens in “Littlerock,” though it somehow remains compelling throughout. It is some time before we realize Mike Ott’s unusual new movie is precisely what you see:  an outsider’s look at small town America.

 

little rock - movie scene

What can happen...if you let it happen

Reunited, Atsuko and Rintaro visit Manzanar, an internment camp where Japanese-Americans were placed during World War II. Atsuko realizes she might have been born in America and might have grown up among Cory and Jordan had things been different. Of course she didn’t, but for a few days she gets a taste of what an alternate life path might look like. Star and co-writer, Atsuko Okatsuka is an actor of limited experience but prodigious talent. Her performance is built around reacting to Cory and the others who speak English to her slowly as though it might help her understand. She responds in Japanese, sometimes with subtitles, sometimes without. Cory and Atsuko speak to each other but never understand their words, communicating by facial expression and body language.

 

Atsuko Okatsuka in Little Rock

Mike Ott was voted “Someone to Watch” at this year’s Spirit Awards, an encomium well deserved. “Littlerock” is a character-driven piece that relies less on words than on images, movement and expression. Ott demonstrates a sure-handed grasp of the medium and elicits potent performances from his cast of newcomers. “Littlerock” is a powerful debut film, unique, intelligent and unpredictable.

*** (out of four)

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