If films were fighters, Mike Ott’s second offering, Littlerock, would weigh in at 123 minutes, placing it in the featherweight division, a deft, gentle movie, lithe and light during its two hours in the ring. Not to suggest that it’s diminutive — this indie sleeper is rich and moving and packs an emotional left hook.
Littlerock works like Lost in Translation in reverse. The slight plot: two young Japanese adults, brother Rintaro and sister Atsuko, have come to America on vacation, and their car breaks down in Littlerock. You’re expecting Arkansas, but oh no, this is Littlerock, California, a quintessential nowhere town, where it takes a lot of work to escape. For most of the youth in the picture, that possibility seems more like a pipe dream. In the opening scene, as they’re walking along a little highway, Rintaro asks his sister, “Is this the right place?” But the right place for what? And what can be gleaned from a place like Littlerock?
Littlerock isn’t much more than some dusty streets lined with thirsty-looking trees, motels, and trailer homes. Ott captures the palette of the place with neutrals and vivid sunsets, generously painting what’s probably a fairly ugly town as somewhat beautiful, and the film’s quietude is accompanied perfectly by a soundtrack courtesy of The Cave Singers. As soon as the two siblings get the ride situation figured out, Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) wants to continue on to San Francisco as they had planned, but after a chance motel party, Atsuko wants to stay behind for a while and get to know (both intimately and casually) what this place is all about. So Rintaro continues on, and Atsuko stays behind to absorb America through one of its best lenses, the shithole nowhere town and the people who populate it. Because what are we if not our nowheres, our left-behind scraggly towns, replete with potheads and rusted-out bikes, loans to repay and girls worth fighting for?
Atsuko befriends Cory (Cory Zacharia), a bizarre, almost unclassifiable person: his sexual identity is very much in flux (bringing out the homophobia in the small-town drug dealer), he’s as naive as he is cunning, generous yet totally self-absorbed, and his mercurial character dominates much of his screen time, such that he nearly steals every scene he graces. His character’s charm is largely due to his total lack of self-awareness — he has a habit of inviting himself along on dates where he’s clearly not welcome. But he’s so likeable because you don’t have much of a clue who he really is. And his magnetism is curiously astronomical. Because Atsuko can’t decipher it any other way, she takes Cory at face value, based on his generosity: he gives her a place to stay and a job taking orders at a roadside burrito joint.
Atsuko (Atsuko Okaysuka) is one of the movie’s writers, and she has oddly and endearingly written herself into the script, not as an agent of speech to move the narrative along, but rather as a quiet observer, one who is relegated to being a mirror for the actions and scenery around her. Because she can’t understand a single word of English, she’s left to deduce the characters of Littlerock through their actions. Additionally, there are no subtitles in the film (except when Rintaro and Atsuko are speaking to one another), so the viewer never knows what Atsuko is saying, which results in these beautiful exchanges during which we too have to take Atsuko at her blinks and nods and the way she stares intensely ahead. We have to deduce how she feels as she rides her bike through town and listens to the mixtape a local hipster gives her. We read her through the economy of her body language. It isn’t hard— Atsuko Okaysuka is a natural on the screen, managing to captivate us for silent stretches of time without a single word. Her performance is reminiscent of Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy, high praise indeed.
It’s worth mentioning that most of the characters in Ott’s film aren’t professional actors; for the most part they’ve been cast to play themselves. This choice might in part be due to financial strains, but it lends the film its verité quality, and also reveals Ott’s commitment to accurately representing this particular place and time. And Ott has an affection for these characters that tends to rub off on you: those characters whose presence would normally be wearisome, ended up endearing themselves to me with their small-town eccentricities.
Atsuko ends up falling for the aforementioned local hipster, who’s slightly cringe-worthy in his Scwhinn-bike-mix-tape-you-don’t-speak-english seduction. Does she fall for him because of his hair? (He does have amazing hair, but that seems to be about it.) She thinks that her feelings for him are mutual, but how can she know? She sort of ends up knowing, when she catches a glimpse, through his curtains, of him making out with another partially undressed girl.
She leaves that scene without being able to confront him or express herself fully, and this is one of the moments that get at what this movie is really about. It’s about how language alienates us, and all the spaces that separate our attempts at communication, barriers between what we want to say and what we actually say. Atsuko is brimming with things she’s dying to express, but with very few outlets. Everyone’s trying to tell someone else who they are, but no one gets around to figuring out how to say it. In one scene, Cory, Atsuko, and the dishwasher, Francisco (Roberto Sanchez), are sitting outside the burrito joint where they work. It’s late, likely after closing, and they’re outside smoking. They’re having a semblance of a conversation, but none of them actually speak a common language. What could be more 2010 California than that?
When Rintaro finally returns from San Francisco, he and Atsuko leave together for their last stop on the trip: Manzanar, the site of an old WWII Japanese internment camp where over 110,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned during the war. The scene shows the brother and sister silently observing monuments and photos, absorbing the history of the place. This sequence feels very much like an homage to, or an echo of, a similar sequence in Barry Jenkins’ film Medicine for Melancholy, in which the two characters, both African American, are looking at the works at MoAd (the Museum of the African Diaspora). As Rintaro and Atsuko take in the history of Manzanar, an internment camp in the middle of the California desert, you feel the experience of their alienation sidle up against a shared history. It’s a scene in which the brother and sister are able to place their identities, the continuity of their cultural heritage and history, in a world in which they are now outsiders. For a brief moment in the film, they are simultaneously both outsiders and at home.
Littlerock is understated without being underwhelming. It’s a quiet, atmospheric whiff of a narrative, and acts like a lyric documentary of a place in time. And that place is Littlerock, which seems like nowhere you’d want to be from, or end up in, and yet people are from there and people end up there. It’s a portrait of what happens in a place like that. As it turns out: a lot of pot smoking, hanging out, bike riding, rage, homophobia, and debt repayment.
While Littlerock isn’t a film for everyone (if you thought watching Wendy and Lucy was like watching paint dry then don’t bother) it’s a quiet — deliberately quiet — sleeper from Mike Ott, who is gifted at restraint. It’s also a quiet film because, well, why should a movie about the spaces in communication be loud? Nothing in the film feels forced, and his directorial hand is modest and tempered. Although he’s in full control of the material, Ott manages to leave enough room for ambiguity – a sign that he’s a director with a bright future ahead.
The movie closes with a pay phone scene that tears at your littlerock heart — Atsuko is leaving without notice to return to Japan; she calls Cory to say goodbye but of course she can’t make herself understood over the phone. All he can understand are her sad inflections; ultimately he never knows what she’s actually saying. There is so much that we are unable to express through language, a space we fill with gestures of longing, looks, glances. It’s a space that Mike Ott has opened a window onto, letting us observe people who are looking to be loved. Or, if that’s too much to ask, then to be partially understood. And if that’s too much to ask, then to just hang out for a while together, perhaps under an overpass, or in a trailer, or on a pair of bikes listening to mix tapes. Because in a town like Littlerock, maybe anything is enough.