STARRING Atsuko Okatsuka, Cory Zacharia, Rintara Sawamoto, Roberto Sanchez WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Mike Ott MPAA RATING NR RUNNING TIME 84 Mins. DISTRIBUTED BY Variance Films OFFICIAL WEBSITE DVD EXTRAS 1 or 2-Disc Edition
After their rental car breaks down, siblings Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) and Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) find themselves in the small California highway town of Littlerock and forced to wait on a replacement. Atsuko speaks and understands no English, while Rintaro possesses only a mild understanding of the language. The two are tourists on their way to Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp where their grandfather had been imprisoned (saying "housed" is minimizing and ignorant) during World War II.
A strange language. A strange town. A not so strange story.
There's a dark cloud that hangs over Littlerock, and it's the threat of that darkness that gives the film much of its emotional depth and power. Seriously, think about it. Littlerock is, for the most part, representative of what's happening in small town after small town across America as poverty sets in, unemployment rises and whole generations of youths are under-employed, under-stimulated and forced to entertain themselves with drugs, alcohol, sex and whatever else they can find. Into this scenario arrives two rather vulnerable individuals who don't even speak the language, let alone understand the culture.
Disaster feels constantly on the horizon, yet to his credit writer/director Mike Ott keeps his eyes on the bigger picture here in exploring cultural issues, ethnic understandings, racial hatred and, ultimately, what it truly means to become community.
Atsuko and Rintaro quickly connect with Cory (Cory Zacharia), a prospective model and actor starting to find a bit of a life outside the small town, at least enough of a life that those who frequently taunt him seem to simultaneously idealize him as their own potential hope to escape the town. Cory himself appears to be as clueless as are his new non-English speaking friends, especially when it comes to his dealings with a local drug dealer growing weary of his inability to pay off a debt. Before long, Atsuko and Rintaro are accepted into the town's small group of disenfranchised young adults who seemingly wile away their days drinking, drugging and partying. Atsuko seems particularly smitten with Cory, and he with her. When the rental car finally arrives, Atsuko has grown more comfortable in this community and asks her brother to go on to San Francisco and return for her later. She spends the next few days staying with Cory in a spare room, while fully immersing herself into the soul of Littlerock. She connects with Francisco (Roberto Sanchez), a relative local who speaks Spanish and understands her "outsider" status.
There is so much more going on in Littlerock than appears on the surface, with Ott wisely giving the viewer occasional opportunities to experience Atsuko's world by only utilizing subtitles when she speaks to her brother and not when she's in dialogue with her English-speaking friends. Watching the ways in which people connect and fail to connect when speaking a language that neither person can understand is rather astounding, a simple yet powerful experience.
Okatsuka does a terrific job as Atsuko, embodying a tremendously wise young woman who grasps far more than is apparent without ever saying a word. Cory Zacharia, a non-actor who grew up in the area, brings a rich authenticity to the film that lowers the drama yet enhances the film's low-key naturalism. Roberto Sanchez gives the film a needed warmth, especially in his scenes with Okatsuka.
As Littlerock closes down, the film's tone shifts dramatically when brother and sister arrive at Manzanar and integrate this piece of American history into their recent experiences in Littlerock. These scenes are subtle yet powerful, emphatically speaking of both common ground and unspoken forms of segregation. It is not disturbing as much as it is simply an unforgettable way to end the film.
An official selection of the 2011 Indianapolis International Film Festival, Littlerock writer/director Mike Ott received the 2011 Independent Spirit "Someone to Watch" Award and the film has played at quite a few festivals throughout the world before being picked up for distribution by Variance Films.