Littlerock (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
May 4, 2012 by Dennis Amith
An enjoyable coming-of-age film that manages to separate from the banality of coming-of-age films by focusing on Japanese characters who find themselves stuck in a small town in America. An intriguing film worth watching!
YEAR OF RELEASE: 2010
DURATION: 82 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:85:1), Color, LPCM 2.0
COMPANY: Kino Lorber
RATED: Not Rated
Release Date: April 10, 2012
Directed by Mike Ott
Written by Mike Ott, Atsuko Okatsuka, Carl McLaughlin
Producer: Sierra Leoni, Laura Ragsdale, Frederick Thornton
Executive Producer: Denny Densmore, Hsin-Fang Li
Music by Amiina, Derek Fudesco
Cinematography by Carl McLaughlin
Edited by David Nordstrom
Production Design by WenDee Cuneo
Atsuko Okatsuka as Atsuko Sakamoto
Cory Zacharia as Cory Lawler
Rintaro Sawamoto as Rintaro Sakamoto
Roberto “Sanz” Sanchez as Francisco Fumero
Ryan Dillon as Brody
Matthew Fling as Garbo
Ivy Khan as Tammy
Lee Lynch as Gene
David Nordstrom as Troy Mairs
Sarah Tadayon as Sarah
LITTLEROCK is a powerfully intimate drama that captures the fears and desires of a young Japanese woman lost in America.
Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) and Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka, who also co-wrote the script) are a Japanese brother and sister spending their summer traveling through the U.S. While on their way to San Francisco, their car breaks down in Littlerock, California, and they kill time with the local young drunks, touring the endless keggers that are the only entertainment in town. Atsuko speaks no English, and becomes the exotic center of attention in this isolated burg, deflecting advances by what seems like every available man in town. When love does come her way, she discovers that passion can be as fleeting as a visit abroad.
Directed by Mike Ott, LITTLEROCK is an affectingly authentic portrait of the bittersweet pain of young love and the cruel reality of cultural miscommunication, making it one of the most emotionally moving American Independents in recent memory.
For independent filmmaker Mike Ott, going through the film festival run and showcasing your film, you never know things will go or if there will be a chance for the film of ever reaching a large audience or better yet, getting video distribution.
But before his 2010 film “Littlerock” was made, inspired by one of his favorite filmmakers, Werner Herzog and his film “Stroszek” (a film about a German couple who move to Wisconsin to live with his American nephew). Growing up in Valencia, California and not far is the small town of Littlerock, having been to that area, Ott would begin his research and meeting the locals.
Littlerock, California is a small community in Los Angeles County but nothing like Los Angeles. A town known for its fruit and small population (of around 1,300), the life of teenagers and adults is a place where teens drink, do drugs, have sex and not sure if they will be able to leave the small town life. While the life of the people depicted in Littlerock can be easily be in any small town in America, the inspiration of “Stroszek”, made Ott think, “what if foreigners ended up in Littlerock?”.
And sure enough, while working on this film and trying to decide what ethnicity to use for the film, the filmmaker met Atsuko Okatsuka and sure enough, it would become the beginning of a collaboration between the two as Atsuko Okatsuko would star in the film as the main lead but also co-write the film with Mike Ott and Carl McLaughlin. And together, the three did their test shots and research of the area and locals and where they met local, Cory Zachararia and others who would star in the film.
“Littlerock” is a low budget indie film, shot with a Sony EX3 HD camera but while shot with a very tight budget, Ott was able to capture the feel of the small town area but also the coming-of-age storyline of the main protagonist from Japan and now stuck in a small town and not knowing what to expect from American culture.
The coming-of-age film would win a “Independent Spirit Award”, “Gotham Award” and the Audience Award at the AFI Fest and now, the film will be released on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Kino Lorber. An amazing accomplishment for Mike Ott and also a film that gives me that feeling that Mike Ott is a filmmaker that shows a lot of potential and someone to watch for in the near future.
“Littlerock” begins with Rintaro Sakamoto (played by Rintaro Sawamoto) and his younger sister Atsuko Sakamoto (played by Atsuko Okatsuka) arriving by bus in the small town of Littlerock, California. Because their rental car broke down and is being repaired, both Rintaro and Atsuko will need to stay in the nearby town for two days before they can continue their trip to San Francisco and Manzanar (one of the locations for the Japanese interment camps during World War II and a site of the Manzanar Historic Site and museum) in their final week of their vacation before they return back to Japan.
While in the small town of Littlerock and not necessarily the place where both brother and sister would want to see of America, Atsuko writes to her father who is estranged from her older brother (and it’s hinted that their father and his family previously lived in America, possibly were interned at the camp and returned back to Japan).
Tthe two are able to find a hotel in Littlerock but as they try to rest for the night, unfortunately a group of teenagers or young adults are partying in the room next door. As Rintaro (who speaks little English) goes to tell them to quiet down, when he doesn’t return, Atsuko goes after him and sees him drinking beers with people in the party and quickly has become friends with Cory Lawler (played by Cory Zacharia).
And Cory and his friends and the party life in Littlerock begins to intrigue Atsuko as many of the guys treat her nicely (and her thinking American guys are nice and good people).
Cory then becomes the friend of both Rintaro and Atsuko and telling them about his life of wanting to become an actor. While Rintaro becomes the middleman of translating for Cory and Atsuko, eventually both manage to communicate with each other despite the person not really understanding what they are saying to each other.
And as the two go to sleep, Atsuko tells Rintaro that she likes it in Littlerock and wants to stay. This surprises Rintaro as the two are supposed to go to San Francisco and Manzanar and shocked that she wants to stay in the small town.
The following day, both Rintaro and Atsuko hang out with Cory and learn that his life is not necessarily all that positive. He owes a guy over a $150 and that person is starting to become violent towards him and most of the guys tend to treat him like an outcast by making him look bad in front of others, asking him if he’s gay or making fun of his acting ambitions.
But for Cory, he finds a special friendship with Atsuko because she’s there to listen to him (despite her not knowing what he is saying). And as Cory takes the two to a new party with another night of intense drinking and smoking, for Atsuko, she becomes enamored of how carefree Americans are and how they party.
On the day that both Rintaro and Atsuko are to get their car and leave to San Francisco, that morning, Atsuko hooks up with Cory’s friend Jordan (played by Brett L. Tines) and the fact that now she has an American boyfriend makes her even happy, but not her brother.
Atsuko tells Rintaro that she wants to stay in Littlerock while he goes to San Francisco and Manzanar and he can come back to pick her up when he’s done. Rintaro can’t believe that his younger sister wants to stay with people that she doesn’t know and while she speaks up for how kind the Americans are, he tries to tell her that she’s wrong. They are just saying nice things to her but her decision is made up and his as well, so Rintaro takes off for San Francisco and leaving Atsuko behind to stay with Cory.
So, how will life be for Atsuko in the last week of her vacation as she stays with Cory in the little town of Littlerock?
“Littlerock” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:85:1 aspect ratio). It’s important to note that this film was shot on a low budget with a Sony EX3 digital camera but for an independent film, the picture quality and clarity is good, while colors are slightly on the softer side and night time scenes does have a bit of noise. One can’t really expect the greatest video quality especially for films on a low-budget, so one shouldn’t expect big budget video quality.
Still, you have to give credit to cinematographer Carl McLaughlin who was able to get some nice shots for example, as both Rintaro and Atsuko were walking throw the weed-filled area towards the hotel or the scene where she and her new American friends are riding their bikes. Especially for the vignette of Atsuko during sunset. Very nice! Overall, McLaughlin was able to work with the equipment that he had and do a pretty good job with it.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“Littlerock” is presented in Linear PCM 2.0 and once again, a low budget film and you don’t really expect too much in terms of an immersive soundscape. But dialogue for the most part can be heard clearly. While I do understand Japanese, I wished some dialogue spoken by Atsuko was subtitled in English, but I can understand the purpose was to feature Cory not understanding what Atsuko was trying to communicate and having the audience feel that same way.
There is some music courtesy of ambient group Amiina and also Derek Fudesco. Overall, dialogue and music is clear for the most part.
“Littlerock” comes with the following special features:
- Audio Commentary – An audio commentary featuring director Mike Ott, Atsuko Okatsuka and Cory Zacharia.
- Deleted Scenes – (8:56) Deleted scenes from “Littlerock”.
- Official Trailer – (1:49) The theatrical trailer for “Littlerock”.
- Screen Tests – (15:28) Featuring Atsuko Okatsuka and Cory’s screen tests and others. (Note: This is the only feature in standard definition, others are in HD.)
- Festival Promos – (3:33) Festival promos for “Littlerock”.
- Stills Gallery – Stills from “Littlerock”.
I enjoyed “Littlerock” because I have lived in a similar situation where I lived in a small town but yet attending university, minoring in Japanese and also meeting many Japanese students.
I’ve often wondered why these students chose to stay in this part of America where they can have fun in San Francisco or Los Angeles or another metropolitan city but for many of these students, I learned that some wanted to experience American culture and separate themselves from the life they had in Japan, others wanted to learn the language as best as they can and thus chose to live away from the city where many Japanese live in order to avoid distractions and of course, you meet those who just want an American girlfriend or boyfriend.
And as many Japanese were paying so much money at the university dorm or a host family, I had rooms to rent at the home I lived in and thus let a few Japanese live there for the semester. And while I was able to communicate with them in English and Japanese and was familiar with their culture, it’s when they ventured out into the small town and I observed their feelings of American life.
From them accompanying me to Filipino parties that my parents would throw, to living in an agricultural area where there were Asians but mostly Caucasian, Latino and African-Americans. So, it was an interesting situation for them as they tried to learn about America, the difference of cultures but also us trying to learn from each other and the differences that we eventually learned of American thinking and Japanese thinking.
In the case of director Mike Ott’s “Littlerock”, there were a few key points that intrigued me. For one, it’s a coming-of-age film for Atsuko as she tries to learn more about her family, especially her father’s disconnect from America. Why did he go back to Japan? Why is there a ridge between he and her older brother? These are not answered in the film but this is one aspect that is rarely touched upon a film and that is Japanese internment. I’ve met many Japanese Americans who told me their stories and I have read many books on the subject as well. But rarely do you see Japanese coming to America for where a Japanese interment camp once stood.
For me, this was fascinating as I have not met one Japanese who knows about what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, but with this film, there is that connection because of Rintaro and Atsuko’s father and grandfather.
Of course, this is a small part of the film and not focused on but the other aspect is the isolation that Atsuko goes through while staying with Cory.
There is no doubt that in a small town, where Asians are hardly seen, with a beautiful young woman, the guys are going to go crazy for her and tell her the nicest things. That’s understandable (even if she was Asian or not) but it’s her learning of American culture through these people at Littlerock. Her fascination of how often they drink and smoke in a carefree attitude.
During my younger college years, I used to throw parties and the Japanese college students loved it because it was this American-style party so different from what they experienced in Japan. And similar to Atsuko, I would see how all these American guys would try to flirt and get closer with the female Japanese students. And most of the time, it worked as I would see friends hooking up and then breaking up and of course, being left to talk to these girls who fell hard for these American guys and loved the experience, but yet having to explain the difference between American and Japanese perspectives. Needless to say, it was a crazy time and I can sympathize with Atsuko’s character.
And as I enjoyed the connection between Atsuko and Cory because they didn’t understand each other, both had similarities and differences. The main difference was Atsuko was able to venture out of Japan and experience American life, while Cory…being this guy with aspirations and meeting his first Japanese and befriending one, unfortunately is probably going to stay in town for the rest of his life. It’s a harsh reality that Ott and Atsuko found during their research of making this film, that many don’t venture out of the small town they lived and experience the life is out there. And once again, I can definitely understand as living in small town, I’ve encountered so many people in my life with a fixed mindset.
So, I enjoyed the authenticity of capturing that small town life but also the perspective of Atsuko having to live in Littlerock for several days.
What didn’t I like about the film? Well, there is this lingering storyline of Cory being mistreated by those he parties with (and gets drugs or alcohol from) but these people who are pursuing him for the money that they are owed. It’s one thing to introduce that into the film but yet go nowhere with it. Part of me wondered if there was supposed to be some traumatic experience where Atsuko was going to witness the death of her new American friend, of course, it doesn’t go that direction but these people were not essential in the storyline and there encounter with Atsuko and chef Francisco Fumero (played by Roberto Sanchez) was just to show the disconnect between small town people of those who have money and those who are Mexican laborers.
The other is the lack of communication between Cory and Atsuko. The truth is that in Japan, many learn basic English. They may not know how to speak it fluently but they learn enough to do the most basic in communication. So, even though Atsuko didn’t speak or understand English, I wished Ott would let her try to communicate a little in English, may it be broken or even tried (especially during the emotional phone call sequence).
As for the Blu-ray release, when it came to video quality, it was much better than I expected, considering this was a low-budget film. I have watched many films created on a Canon 5D Mark II and see the challenges cinematographers had with the high noise during low-light scenes but it was interesting to see things shot with a Sony Ex3 HD camera (which is still two times more expensive than a Canon 5D Mark II) and the type of video quality that was shot. Although a bit soft, still…the quality for this low-budget film was much better than I expected. And also, you do get a good number of special features including a crazy, entertaining audio commentary.
Overall, “Littlerock” was an indie film that I appreciated for the fact that the main protagonist is Japanese while the other supporting talents made this film quite diverse. Ott was able to capitalize on various emotional issues through the film but also exploring a foreigner stuck in a small town, and from that experience, learning a bit about American culture in a less glamorous way (an interesting juxtaposition to the film “Lost in Translation”) but also being one of the filmmakers to explore the Japanese perspective of interment camps in America. You just don’t see that in a film.
An enjoyable coming-of-age film that manages to separate from the banality of coming-of-age films by focusing on Japanese characters who find themselves stuck in a small town in America. “Littlerock” is an intriguing film worth watching!
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