" Now there’s something you don’t see every day "
— Kathy Bates, Titanic

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When you’re traveling in a foreign country on vacation, everything — even the mundane — seems special. Littlerock turns that experience around and invites us to look at small-town America through Japanese eyes.

Mixing with the Locals

Atsuko decides to stay a while in Littlerock
Atsuko decides to stay a while in Littlerock

Atsuko and her brother Rintaro (Atsuko Okatsuka and Rintaro Sawamoto) are Japanese youths — college students, maybe? — traveling through the United States. They are on their way to San Francisco and Manzanar (site of a WWII internment camp) when their car breaks down.

They open the film wandering through the empty fields around the small town of Littlerock (California, that is). They take a room at a cheap motel. A party next door keeps them up late. Rintaro goes next door to tell them to keep it down, and gets invited to stay and have a beer. Atsuko goes to see what’s keeping him, and she joins the party as well. Rintaro speaks broken English, Atsuko none at all.

Cory (Cory Lawler) in particular takes a shine to his new worldly friends, adopting them as “his” friends and introducing them to the Bud-Light-chugging locals. Cory dreams of being a model, maybe acting; you get the sense that he’s gay but isn’t quite ready to come out yet, even to himself. At another party the next night, Atsuko takes a shine to a local boy who invites her to ride bikes with him around town the next day.

When it’s time for the sibling to move on to San Francisco, Atsuko decides she’s going to stay in Littlerock for a few days while Rintaro goes to the bay.

Mundane scenes take on new weight, new significance when viewed by an outsider. The usual mix of personalities at a party becomes a careful anthropological study. Bullying and posturing you’d ordinarily take for granted are thrown into stark relief when Atsuko watches them earnestly as examples of American Behavior. The sheer variety of faces — African-American, white, Mexican, Asian — makes you proud to be an American under the fascinated gaze of a Japanese visitor.

Atsuko Okatsuka plays her namesake with a hint of mystery. We don’t know exactly why she wants to stay in town — is it because she has a crush on the bike boy, or does she like the way of life in the community? The ending tells us that her grandfather left the U.S. after being interned at Manzanar. If not for that, Atsuko herself might have been born into this culture. Mabye she’s trying it on for size to see how it fits. Maybe it’s more than just curiosity.

In any case, Littlerock is a very good American indie. It has the feel of a new wave film. It features non-famous actors in everyday roles. It’s shot in real locations with natural lighting and handheld photography. Granted, within that style there are good and bad movies. The lesser ones have bad acting or ham-fisted message-heavy plots.

The better ones, including Littlerock, find success in human-sized ambitions such as honest characterizations and subtle yet meaningful character growth. It’s the kind of movie you can’t tear your eyes away from, even though there isn’t a lot of action on screen.

Our festival advice: Buy a ticket!