There are a hundred songs about the compelling desire to “get out of this town.” There’s no shortage of films on the subject either, which is why I was surprised to find a unique, albeit incredibly bleak perspective in Mike Ott’s “Pearblossom Hwy.” “Mumblecore” is a term used to describe a certain level of realism in character-driven independent dramas. But I’m starting to believe that Mumblecore is simply the best way to tell a story. The characters are so authentic that you tend to root for them almost immediately. But this also means you have no idea how it will turn out. Life isn’t a movie but that doesn’t mean a movie can’t be like life.
“Pearblossom Hwy” is a shining example of this exceptional genre. Ott and co-writer/star Atsuko Okatsuka have crafted a small town tale that breaks all the rules that Hollywood has set for dramatic storytelling. Cory (Cory Zachariah) is a sensitive blockhead with dreams of stardom. He films his video selfies as part of an audition for a reality TV show, but we know he’s not going to make the cut. His problems are way too grave to make for good television. His punk band is lucky to get tiny gigs at the local watering hole, and he doesn’t even really have a day-job to not quit. Cory is a small-town kid with big dreams, but it’s only a matter of time before these dreams are dashed. You would not see Channing Tatum playing a character that unnervingly tragic. Cory comes off as one of those naive gay kids from Middle America who winds up on the end of a rope. His potential misfortune looms so ominously that you’re not sure you want to be around when it happens.
Cory’s best friend, Anna (Atsuko Okatsuka) has a demeanor that could be confused for stoicism but is more likely numbness or an emotional armor. She needs both in her line of work, which is, of course, prostitution. By day, she helps her uncle with his gardening business. By night she trolls truck stops and seems to attract the creepiest of johns who insist on videoing their encounters. There isn’t a Richard Gere among them. We don’t know Anna’s age, but she looks like a child. This makes it all the harder to watch her put herself in these situations which are, at best, degrading. She’s an intelligent girl who has convinced herself that this is her only option for fast cash and a plane ticket to Japan to see her ailing Grandmother.
It’s clear why Anna is drawn to Cory. They’re both emotional orphans. Cory’s older brother Jeff is convinced there’s only one way to be a man. That’s to serve your country, get a job and bed women. Because Cory doesn’t meet any of these qualifications, Jeff is simultaneously concerned for and disgusted by him. Anna gets no support from her family who, including her Grandmother, all believe that the most important thing for her to do is study for her upcoming U.S. citizenship test. She lives with her Aunt and Uncle and they treat her like an obligation. This isn’t a Reese Witherspoon movie. These kids aren’t just stuck in their small town because they haven’t found themselves. They have nearly insurmountable financial constraints and are basically one bad month or one familial bust-up away from being homeless.
The film does take a little while to hit its stride, though Ott uses a jarring transitional sound effect between scenes, which brings a sense of dread to the slow beginning. But the real story starts once Jeff takes Cory and Anna to San Francisco to meet Cory’s biological father. Jeff not so secretly hopes the old man will serve as a warning for Cory to shape up. What Cory and Anna find is not an escape but instead a clearer picture of the sort of freedom they may never have.
“Pearblossom Hwy” is powerful stuff and it haunts you long after the credits. Their issues will never be resolved or else it will be years before anything truly changes for them. Cory writes silly yet earnest rebellion songs with his band that amount to little more than punk rock greeting cards. He uses his fervent anti-conformity act to distract from the closet he’s hiding in, not only from his homophobic marine brother but also himself. Anna only cares about becoming an American citizen because it’s what he grandmother would have wanted. It comes down to seeing her grandmother one last time or taking the test to make her grandmother happy in her final hours. It’s a tough decision and one that is eventually made for her.
Don’t hold your breath for a happy ending, nor for any ending really. This is just life. There is nothing for them beyond the constraints of their zip code. Yes, it’s bleak. But sometimes the awful truth is a florid breath of fresh air. They don’t write too many songs like that, but they should.