Home Video Hovel- Littlerock, by Aaron Pinkston
I first heard about Mike Ott’s micro-budgeted Littlerock on the Slashfilmcast, where special guest Stephen Tobolowsky mentioned he saw the film at some random film festival (I don’t recall which) and that he thought it was “pretty good.” I doubt his direct endorsement of the film coaxed many to see it, as few probably had the ability to, but hopefully my seconding will influence some to check it out now that it has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Littlerock is the best type of American indie — it captures real human emotion and tells a unique story without melodrama or pretension. The film involves two Japanese travelers in California who get stuck in a small town called Littlerock (65 miles outside of downtown Los Angeles, but you’d never be able to tell) before they reach the end of their journey. Without the ability to speak English in a strange land, they fend for themselves, make friends and connections. Throughout the course of the plot, there are many places where Ott could have easily amped up unnecessary drama or have terrible things happen to his characters (there were many moments where I was expecting the worst), but he wisely lets the film play out with a great realism, just enough insight and just enough emotion.
The film manages to say a lot without actually saying much — which makes up for a lack of energy from scene to scene. The most apparent film tropes include a nice mix of small town America story and the fish-out-of-water story. Littlerock also works as a discussion on how people communicate with each other through words, emotions and body language. These themes are enough for most movies, but we also see the American experience of tourists and specifically Japanese and Japanese-American history in California. Through most of the film, the audience isn’t aware why Atsuko and Rintaro are so far from home. When the film shows us in the final scenes, it manages to be both understated and incredibly heartfelt, wrapping up their experiences nicely and with meaning — as opposed to a recent trend in American independent cinema to leave its audience without an end.
Though the entire cast is pretty solid, especially considering most of the dialogue is spoken between people who don’t speak the same language, but I have to single out Cory Zacharia, who gives one of my favorite supporting performances of last year. An inhabitant of Littlerock and quick friend to Atsuko and Rintaro, his character is someone you’d most likely see on Glee, but, you know, seeming like a real person with actual person problems. I knew someone exactly like him in high school and I imagine you did, too — he’s a loner, probably gay, struggling with his self-identity and family situation. Though he has no actual transformation, I found my attitude toward Cory changing. At first, he seems every bit of the loser others see him as, annoying and actually kind of creepy. Zacharia’s performance is able to generate a great deal of sympathy by the end. Cory is one of the saddest, yet never melodramatic, characters in new American independent film.
The main “relationship” in the film exists between Cory and the young Japanese girl Atsuko, a pseudo-love story of miscommunication. The characters literally can’t understand each other, which ultimately gives them differing perspectives on the nature of their new bond, but a sweet friendship still occurs. The film has every chance to be cutesy, but it never is. Instead, it presents a relationship of two people incredibly alone — one away from her family and country, and the other with his family and country, but ostracized by them. Like the film, their relationship never strays past the point where it realistically should.
I’m amazed to see such a modestly made film end up on Blu-Ray and expected it to be a bare-bones release. The distributor, Kino Lorber, gave the film a number of quality special features, including deleted scenes, galleries, screen tests and promos from its festival tour. Extra surprising, the Blu-Ray release also includes a feature commentary track with director Mike Ott and the young stars Atsuko Okatsuko and Cory Zacharia. The commentary isn’t incredibly insightful, but it is fun to hear the three film newcomers talk about their experiences during making of the film. With a film as small as Littlerock, it is interesting to see how these people’s real lives informed the film and how their lives have changed because of it.