“What’s there to do with these people?” a young Japanese tourist imploringly asks his sister of the American layabouts who have captured her imagination in Littlerock, director Mike Ott’s second narrative feature and one that cannily plays its intentions close to the vest. The siblings played by Atsuko Okatsuka and Rintaro Sawamoto (who lend their first names to their characters) find themselves stuck in a sleepy Los Angeles County desert town when their car breaks down en route to San Francisco, and though Rintaro is the first to connect with a crew of zealous midnight partiers in a neighboring motel room after he fails to get them to turn down their speed-metal tapes, it’s the placidly beautiful, introverted Atsuko—lacking her brother’s rudimentary English skills—who’s mysteriously and persistently drawn to the company and courtship of the locals, particularly a diffident musician (Brett L. Tinnes) and a taco-stand goofball (Cory Zacharia) nursing half-baked ambitions to pursue art and modeling in L.A. Amid the keggers and daytime bike rides is plenty of drug use, an overdue loan, and a menacing alpha-male bigot (Ryan Dillon), but Ott uses the threat of violence as a mere layer of mood, keeping his focus on the mutable, and often unspoken, themes of identity and the nature of attempts to explore and redefine it.
Ott and cinematographer Fred McLaughlin, who collaborated on the script with Okatsuka, bookend Littlerock with beauty shots of rocky desertscapes beside the highway and the odd twilight shot of the travelers silhouetted against the semi-rural sprawl, but their principal visual motifs are faces and bodies in some posture of inquiry or hesitation, even when the SoCal bros are passing a pipe around, commiserating over unrequited love as Atsuko sits among them, observant but only vaguely comprehending. Rather than serving as an exoticized object of lust for Zacharia and Tinnes to passive-aggressively compete for, Okatsuka’s performance, and her voiceovers of letters home to Atsuko’s father (freely fibbing about her location and activities), hold a yearning mix of bafflement and purpose; the girl’s quest to solve the enigma of America is both aided and thwarted by its slippery, unfathomable man-boys.
Impeccably cast down to Roberto Sanchez in the small role of a guarded Mexican cook who coaches Atsuko with a brusque but puzzled mien, Ott’s film risks the most in giving large chunks of screen time to Zacharia’s dopey Cory, a trippy-cadenced cousin to Crispin Glover’s dimmer creations, or a landlocked Jeff Spicoli manning the burrito counter at his dismissive father’s roadside eatery. Mocked by the film and his buddies for his dubious runway walk (“like a bobblehead,” one stoner jeers) and a mortifying video monologue submitted to the local art gallery (“I am poetry!” Cory declaims), this smitten fuck-up ultimately lays himself bare in a plea for romance that echoes the pathos of Joaquin Phoenix’s suffering swain in Two Lovers. Though Littlerock‘s last scenes clarify the Japanese pair’s motives with a visit to the site of the World War II internment camp at Manzanar (with a far less heavy hand than that would seem to guarantee), it includes the denizens of the town they leave behind as fellow aliens, whose ambitions, self-delusions, or quotidian outlets for sensual expression all sit on the same spectrum of human hungers.