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Using only a handheld camera and a small cast of characters, Mike Ott’s “Littlerock” leaves a lasting impression. The sweeping landscape and ethereal lighting contribute to the overall magic taken from the mundane. The town of Littlerock, California, which serves as the backdrop to this intriguing film, is really a remnant of the American Dream. In this movie, the place itself could not have been better cast.
When Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka, who also co-wrote the film) and her brother, Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto), come to America to experience something completely unlike their own lives, they are warned by their father that they will regret it. What they are met with is certainly not the golden age of America, just a place full of people as different from their Japanese friends as they could be.
The most important of these locals is aspiring model, Cory (Cory Zacharia), whose puppy-dog affection for Atsuko is both endearing and slightly off-putting. It is Atsuko who becomes captivated by the unlikely charm of this rundown place. She even begs her brother to let her stay a little longer.
He reluctantly leaves her there, and gone is Atsuko’s only hope of translation, and ours, as her subtitles drive off into the sunset with him. As a result, we become involved in this frustrating situation of miscommunication.
When Cory cries out in exasperation because he can no longer fool himself that he and Atsuko don’t need words in order to understand each other, it affects you on a deeper level than most films. As a viewer, you have not been taking a passive role. Instead, you have been attempting to decode Atsuko in the same ways Cory has been trying.
The film was almost painful at times because it was so relatable, so human, so personal. With the characters and actors almost being the same person – actors kept their names and, sometimes, their back stories – their performances were heartfelt and vulnerable. It results in quite a melancholy experience.
You don’t know whether to laugh or cry with or at them, partly because if you did one or the other, you would not just be reacting to a character but also be affected by a real story and real people. Ott’s powerful ability to tell a story that is both personal and relatable comes from using his own life as a starting point.
“It was a really organic process making this movie,” Ott said. “It started with this idea I had after going to South America for a film festival. And I met this girl when I [was] down there that only spoke Spanish. And I only speak English. So we kind of had this romance, but I mean she didn’t speak a word of English and my Spanish is minimal.
And then I tried to phone her after I left and it was just this super awkward conversation just trying to express that I had a good time hanging out with her. It just doesn’t translate. So I just started thinking about that.” It is his own personal experiences, and those of the actors, that have helped shape this movie into a tender, thought-provoking journey.