I will admit to not being a huge fan of American independent cinema in general, largely for its tendency to recycle self-regarding postures and technique instead of ringing out with intelligent, individual voices. And so I approached the AFI Fest‘s Young Americans strand with caution, but am pleased to say that Mike Ott’s Littlerock does its part to restore the good name of the 20-something indie genre.

The title is a town, somewhere out in the desert on Pear Blossom highway. A Japanese brother and sister are stranded on their road trip, waiting on a rental car. It’s a nowhere town, populated by young people with little to do but drink and hang out and smoke pot and ride bikes, trapped. But for Atsuko, the girl, it has an alien exoticism; the friendly attentions of local Cory make the pair feel welcome; and besides, she gets a (successful) crush on a local hipster and decides to stay a while.

Ott treads a knife-edge of meandering whimsy: many of the staple elements are present, from the oddball, backwoods setting to lyrical sunlight slo-mo bike rides, shots of the desert from moving car, and gently semi-acoustic soundtrack. But he uses them without excess, keeping them relevant and supportive to the story he is telling, and whilst still on the mimsy side, the soundtrack is a cut above (it finds room for both a saw and The Fall). There’s two complementary tones at work here, both concerned very specifically with the semi-dislocated nature of the place: the freedom and fantasy-world of vacation, and Atsuko’s textured relationship with America. For she and Rintaro are headed to Manzanar, site of the WWII Japanese relocation camp out in the desert. Advanced warning dilutes the sudden history-lesson feeling of their arrival there at the end, and it’s a little-enough told story to warrant a detour; Atsuko’s musing on an alternate life, where she grows up American, serves to add a complicating texture to her relationship with the roots of this part of the country.

Not that it lacks texture otherwise. I should mention that Atsuko can neither speak nor understand English. Rintaro helps her until he leaves for San Fransisco, but thereafter she’s on her own. On her own apart form Cory that is. He’s an unusual find, Cory Zacharia, a first-time actor effectively playing himself, and compared explicitly by Ott to Bruno S. He is an immensely friendly, good-natured, gentle soul, and one wonders if he is not a little touched. It’s kind of heartbreaking to learn gradually that he is the butt of the town’s jokes, teased even by his father for seeming gay, and to observe his inevitably unsuccessful attempts to be Atsuko’s boyfriend. But he is also inept, completely unable to imagine the consequences of continually blowing off his debt to the local drug supplier, blithely relying on pipe-dreams and everything turning out alright, and seemingly lacking some fundamental component of awareness of self and of the world around him. Or is he crazy like a fox? He’s nothing if not himself, his rather ridiculous video art (” I AM poetry”) demonstrating at least a completely unself-conscious commitment, and there are fleeting moments when we see something turning behind those dark eyes, as though yes, the barbs do hit home, and yes they do hurt. That’s why the ending, a telephone call in which Atsuko’s patience with the language barrier finally breaks down, is heartbreaking in its inadvertancy.

Atsuko Okatsuka (who also co-scripted) is the film’s other great asset. Much of the time all she has to do is watch, wide-eyed, but she displays a terrific range of economical facial expressions and perpetual attentiveness. For most of the locals (well-handled non-professionals, largely) she is an exotic visitor, and Corey aside, the only person with whom she finds anything like a friendship is the Mexican restaurant chef where she goes to work. The bar to communication is sensibly used to illustrate how much can be conveyed without linguistic understanding, through tone and body, and makes a useful focus to the questions of otherness that float through the film. She inevitably remains rather unknown for us too, but Okatsuka gives enough to imply a character perhaps no richer than the average 20 or so year-old girl, but at least as fully formed.

So if the film doesn’t so much explore as wander through its various themes, they do remain fundamental to its conception, as opposed to meretricious backdrop. It’s certainly not definitive in its avoidance of tired indie tropes: the photography relies heavily on a prettifying sun and there’s considerably too much unnecessary handheld camerawork and focus fiddling. But the film stands out for handling its gentle tone with well-judged control, largely avoiding the navel-gazing, lapses in taste and self-indulgent tendencies endemic to the genre; for conjuring that strange vacation state of mind, but layered with the wider implications of difference; and for an undercurrent of real sadness to the dead-end location and its local holy fool.

Rating: 8.23/10