By Michael Nordine | November 10, 2010

Somewhere on the outskirts of Los Angeles County is a town called Littlerock. There isn’t much there. Watching Mike Ott’s film of the same name, one gets the sense that the out-of-the-way town’s near-proximity to a major city only amplifies its loneliness. It’s as if being so close—yet so far—to what might be called civilization only draws negative attention to everything the place depicted in this film isn’t. This sense of being simultaneously close and far is perhaps Littlerock‘s thematic bedrock: it is a film of missed connections, of words either misunderstood or unheard altogether. And though it’s true that there isn’t much to Littlerock, the same cannot be said of this film. It’s a subtle, low-key affair where not much is said out loud (its two main characters are Japanese, and only one of them speaks any English at all) but much is gleaned through gestures and glances. In presenting a language barrier between Atsuko, Littlerock‘s protagonist, and just about everyone else, Ott has opened the door to other, more telling (not to mention cinematic) means of communication. The result is a restrained but nonetheless visually arresting film about the various ways in which we reach out to one another, often to no avail.

Littlerock is a road movie without much road and a love story without much love. Atsuko and Rintaro, siblings from Japan on a trip through California, get stranded in Littlerock for a few days when their rental car breaks down. Their path is further altered when they make friends with a young man named Cory—who immediately takes an interest in Atsuko—at a party in the motel room next to theirs. Too, Atsuko takes a liking to everyone she meets in Littlerock, and decides to stay for a few extra days while Rintaro goes to San Francisco once their car is fixed. Her journey is thus an internal one brought about not by time spent looking through the windshield of a car, but by the sights, sounds, and people of an otherwise unremarkable place.

Throughout the course of the film, Littlerock becomes a character itself—from its outlying regions to its pink sunsets, Littlerock is a weird, sad, yet somehow beautiful place that shapes every aspect of its residents’ lives, from how they get around to what they do with their time. It also proves a fitting backdrop for a look at bored, dissatisfied youth, almost all of whom spend their time drifting from one hazy party to another—whether they’re in a motel room or a backyard—and the only ones who aren’t forced to get around by foot or bicycle are those to whom Cory owes money.

Perhaps the most significant verbal element of the film is a series of short letters Atsuko writes to her father back in Japan, which we hear her narrate. Not everything she tells her father—who, it is implied, does not approve of this trip—is true. Somewhat strangely, the imagistic air of Littlerock seems to be brought out most effectively during these sequences; it’s as though Atsuko’s inner thoughts are in tune with Littlerock’s washed-out expanse of land and sky. The effect brings to mind certain scenes of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, which may well have influenced this film.

In its last act, Littlerock veers into new territory when it reveals that the purpose of Atsuko and Rintaro’s pilgrimage was to visit the internment camp in Manzanar, California where their grandfather died. Suddenly, the misgivings her father had about this trip Atsuko’s letters alluded to are made clear: despite its importance, this is a place of great pain. The somewhat political turn—contrary to the otherwise soft-spoken, gentle nature of the film—is perhaps misguided, but its visceral impact is handled well enough for it not to distract from the fact that this is ultimately a film of discovery through sensory experience. In weaving its origin into its ending, Littlerock offers one last resonate note on the places we can go when we allow ourselves to be taken.

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