Writer-director: Mike Ott
Starring: Atsuko Okatsuka, Cory Zacharia, Rintaro Sawamoto, Roberto Sanchez, Brett L. Tinnes, Ryan Dillon
A nicely photographed and initially intriguing character study of a road trip gone awry, and a sibling pair of foreign travelers waylaid in a land foreign to them, “Littlerock” quickly fumbles away any sense of delicate engagement, and ends up a collection of posed and meandering down-tempo moments in search of an inciting incident or clarifying signifier. Pleased with itself more than it ought to be, the movie seems to believe or feel that dawdling for dawdling’s sake is in the end its own kind of precious artistic statement, a fact only underscored by a heavy-handed political statement finale.
Written and directed by Mike Ott, “Littlerock” is one of those indie films where the actors (non-professionals or neophytes, one assumes) all play characters with the same first names. Whether this was because the film is “real,” and rooted in actual experiences and their personalities or just so no one got confused on set, one can’t be certain. Regardless, the story centers on brother and sister Atsuko and Rintaro (Atsuko Okatsuka and Rintaro Sawamoto), Japanese tourists whom we glean through a small handful of narrated postcards written back home, have a rocky relationship with their father. The pair gets stuck in the title town, a sleepy ex-urb of Los Angeles, when their car breaks down. Later that night, the duo happen upon a party at a nearby hotel, and make friends with Cory (Cory Zacharia), a kind of feckless loafer with loosely defined ambitions to be an actor or model.
Rintaro speaks a little English, and Atsuko none at all. The next day they “site-see” with Cory, meet some more people, and then head to another party. Despite the language barrier, Atsuko bonds more with the locals than her brother, and when he presses her to continue north as part of their agreed upon itinerary, she balks and stays behind. Staying with Cory (who lives with his father), Atsuko further tethers herself to her new surroundings, striking up a quasi-relationship with another boy, and taking a job at the Mexican restaurant where Cory works when he feels particularly gripped by the urge. Will Rintaro ever return? And what is bonding Atsuko to this place? Ah, these are the mysteries of “Littlerock,” where twentysomething kids ride bikes for fun when they’re not enjoying some beer and a smoke.
Somewhat (very loosely) like the recent “Bellflower” or the Polish brothers’ 2001 dramedy “Jackpot,” “Littlerock” aims to be a portrait of arrested place and curious ambition. It means to be a sort of dusty, Southern California thematic companion to Richard Linklater’s “SubUrbia,” in which characters drink, smoke pot and passive-aggressively hassle one another while figuring out what to do with their lives. (Instead of parking lots, though, we get empty, rundown state parks and dingy apartments and RVs.) The problem is that there is no substantive and sustained outside force acting upon Cory, or Atsuko and Rintaro. Everyone is drifting, like a tattered leaf caught in a lazy breeze. Even when Cory is hassled over money he mysteriously owes an acquaintance, the stakes ($200) and pressure (a verbal berating, a poured-out beer) never amount to much of anything.
The performances, too, fail to engage. Okatsuka has a certain watchable mysteriousness, but that chiefly owes to the fact that she doesn’t speak any English. Zacharia, meanwhile, cycles through a thoroughly unconvincing catalogue of babytalk-inflected mannerisms in his dealings with Atsuko, whom his character is supposed to have a crush on. He comes across as an open-mouthed trout; it’s an annoying turn that only becomes more irritating when the script requires him to repeatedly fail to pick up on any nonverbal indicators. (At one point late in the film, he even gets cross and says, out loud, that it’s like Atsuko can’t understand him. Ummm… yeah.)
Most damningly, though, despite the ambivalence of its characters, “Littlerock” has no headstrong, purposeful sense of its own identity. Were the film to truly be about the journey of Atsuko and Rintaro — as its ending indicates that it is supposed to be — it would not implicitly identify with Cory, as it does in several scenes. Instead, Ott constructs a cutesy, willfully modest and submissive cultural mash-up, and proclaims it profound, or art, merely by virtue of its construction. For more information, visit www.littlerock-movie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon