Atsuko Hirayanagi’s feature-length directorial debut, Oh Lucy!, offers a surprising take on the tricky art of communication. Expanding on the writer-director’s 2014 short of the same name, the film follows its main characters from Japan to Southern California, a journey that becomes a reflection on the way that changes in environment can disrupt one’s sense of self.
Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) lives a banal and unrewarding life in Tokyo. Only when she begins taking English classes as a favor to her bubbly niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), does she start to come alive, and even then in a guarded way. The unconventional sessions are run by an attractive American named John (Josh Hartnett). On her first day, he hands her a blond wig and gives her an American name, Lucy. These classes, centering around exaggeratedly American greetings and gestures, quickly become an emotional comfort for Setsuko as she becomes increasingly attached to her new persona.
After Mika and John run away to Los Angeles, Setsuko and her sister—Mika’s controlling mother, Ayako (Kaho Minami)—travel there to find them. But upon arriving, they learn that Mika has fled to San Diego, and soon Setsuko, Ayako, and John are wending their way through sunny SoCal trying to find her. Throughout the film, Setsuko begins to adopt and magnify Mika’s impulsive and youthful nature, partly out of affection for John (she goes so far as to initiate a brief romance with him), but also because she enjoys her autonomy outside of her life in Tokyo. But the joy this brings her doesn’t last long, as everyone realizes that John isn’t who he seemed, and soon the traveling companions end up irreparably at odds with each other.
While Oh Lucy! has the trappings of a culture-clash dramedy, it seldom relies on Setsuko and company’s newness to America and limited English to deliver easy laughs. Its aims are more ambitious and center on emphasizing what can be expressed through difficulties in communication. The exaggeratedly American greetings that John teaches his class are initially funny, but the film reveals itself to be more interested in the ways that Setsuko feels liberated from the banality of her life by these lessons. And Terajima brings intriguing shades of confusion to her role: As the narrative develops, the actress underlines the intensity with which contrasting feelings are stirred within Setsuko, specifically when her playacting has damaging effects.
Perhaps inevitably, the supporting characters feel flat by comparison, to the degree that Setsuko’s interactions with them are far less interesting than her reactions to them. This is nowhere more apparent than the treatment of Setsuko’s tryst with John and its aftermath. It’s here that the film begins to lose its focus, curiously shifting its attention to John’s background and the mechanics of a relationship whose interest didn’t so much lie in its existence as in the way that it reflected aspects of Setsuko’s psychology.
The film closes on a bittersweet note as Setsuko finds herself isolated, her future up in the air. Having damaged several relationships and returned home to things worse than when she left, she’ll have to figure out how to live a different life. But of course, that’s nothing she hasn’t done before.