This bare bones indie about a Japanese tourist stuck in a listless California town has much more going for it than meets the eye.
The film opens with the brother-sister duo of Atsuko and Rintaro (played by Atsuko Okatsuka, who also cowrote the story, and Rintaro Sawamoto) arriving in the titular Littlerock – an hour's drive east of Los Angeles, but in the middle of nowhere – when their rental car breaks down on the way to the ruins of the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar.
These exotic outsiders soon become the subjects of idle fascination for the bored young locals who, adrift after high school, have not yet figured out what to do with their lives. The first to latch on to them is Cory (Cory Zacharia), a garrulous but little-liked nerd who spies a rare chance at friendship – and possibly romance – with the hip, gentle Atsuko, even though she doesn't speak a word of English.
When their car is repaired and Rintaro is ready to at least check out San Francisco, Atsuko decides to linger in Littlerock for a few days – not for Cory but for a scruffy, handsome dude named Jordan, who's also been giving her the eye. So Rintaro takes off, taking his limited English and thus Atsuko's only means of verbal communication with him.
Littlerock is truly what American independent cinema is supposed to be about: zero budget, no stars, and a quiet but emotionally honest little story about human relationships. In using foreigners to examine the bleak American landscape, it follows in the footsteps of Jim Jarmusch's early films – Mystery Train is the obvious parallel, because of its Japanese tourists, but Stranger Than Paradise is a more direct comparison – though it eschews Jarmusch's rigid formalism for the gritty, handheld look typical of today's low-budget movies.
It's not flawless: the characters' inability to learn even a couple of words of each other's language is a little disingenuous, even if I understand the point. Also, it depicts a world that only exists in contemporary indie films, where the '90s never ended, young people still listen to cassette tapes, and no one has a cell phone.
Littlerock's charms are still plentiful. Okatsuka has a quiet appeal, the sun-baked high desert environment provides a haunting backdrop, and there is genuine emotion on display here, restrained as it is. For anyone who complains that American independent cinema has lost its soul, Littlerock is for you.