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No big ambitions in ‘Littlerock,’ just wisdom

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / October 7, 2011

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Littlerock is a tiny, arid patch of nothing-special California. It’s not far from Palmdale. It’s almost 65 miles north of Los Angeles, and if you’re ever hoping to catch the state’s southern half at its sleepiest, Littlerock might not disappoint. Mike Ott has set his second movie there and titled it “Littlerock.’’ But he’s distilled the town until it floats somewhere between a hangover and a dream.

It’s a place strewn with mildly cool kids who seem happy getting stoned in trailers, partying in motel rooms, and giving each other verbal noogies. But with Ott showing us Littlerock through the eyes of two young vacationing Japanese siblings - Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) and Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) - it’s a scrap of America that’s both foreign and dismayingly familiar. They’re touring California and one night find themselves drinking and smoking in the motel room adjacent to the Americans’ room. Their biggest admirer is a gangly, strangely cute guy named Cory (Cory Zacharia).

Cory has a big nose and small eyes that sit high up on his face so that what’s below them is a lot like this town: empty space. He looks like a caricature of the fashion model he says he sometimes is. He speaks in a breathy, drawling whine that a few of his friends find both culturally gay and actually homosexual. You see what they mean. But he’s drawn to Atsuko, to her style. When she forgoes the San Francisco leg of her trip, in part, to hang out with him, you can’t condone it (she and Rintaro were trying to heal a rift; oh, and it’s San Francisco), but you understand. She’s an artist, and Cory is a piece of work. Her other excuse is a different boy (Brett L. Tinnes) who attracts her sexually rather than aesthetically.

She moves in with Cory, and the longer she stays, the stranger all her relationships become, including her bond with her idea of America. “Littlerock,’’ which is screening only a few times this weekend at the Paramount, appears to be up to one thing - a kind of muted romance. But once Atsuko takes a job at Cory’s father’s Mexican restaurant, it opens into a more dolorous consideration of tolerance and foreignness. She sees Cory and two of his acquaintances insult the restaurant’s Hispanic line cook (Roberto “Sanz’’ Sanchez). The cook’s English appears to be as mediocre as hers, and they find a surprising, poignant kinship that flourishes mostly with eye contact.

When Rintaro returns, he’s disappointed in his sister - who’s also been writing misleading letters to their father in Japan assuring him that the trip’s been healing for them - and insists she go east with him to Manzanar to see the national historic site and Japanese internment museum. The excursion deepens their trip. It deepens the movie, too.

Ott wrote “Littlerock’’ with Okatsuka and the movie’s cinematographer, Carl McLaughlin, and they make easy idiots of the Americans. But they’re aiming for an exploration of the contradictions in some racism (attraction and repulsion, inclusion and exclusion). They’re not looking to say anything grand. What they do say - and what we see - is smart and true.

Wesley Morris can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.

LITTLEROCK Directed by: Mike Ott

Written by: Atsuko Okatsuka, Carl McLaughlin, and Ott

Starring: Okatsuka, Cory Zacharia, Rintaro Sawamoto, and Roberto “Sanz”” Sanchez

At: Paramount Theatre

Running time: 88 minutes

In Japanese and English, with English subtitles

Unrated (some language, drug use, and sex)

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