Which is not nearly as dry as that might sound, though Littlerock itself, a down-market exurb northeast of Los Angeles where the film is set, certainly is. So parched is this bump in the road that any movement sends dust flying in a landscape already saturated in browns. Yet McLaughlin, who has a good eye for the minimal, manages to bring out the haunting beauty of empty places littered with the discards of forgotten lives.
It all begins when brother and sister Rintaro and Atsuko are stranded after their rental car breaks down. They are already uneasy traveling companions, here from Japan on a California road trip and clearly tired of each other. Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) is anxious to get to San Francisco, their next stop on a carefully mapped-out agenda. Atsuko (Okatsuka) would just like to relax for a day or two and drink it all in, even though Littlerock seems to have little to offer.
The idea of communication becomes the central issue because Atsuko doesn’t speak English. Instead, she relies on her brother’s bare-bones knowledge, then increasingly her instincts and observations, as the siblings get drawn into the local slacker scene of drinking, drugs, occasional sex and lots of aimless hanging out. Cory (Cory Zacharia), a slacker among slackers who has Hollywood dreams and hometown issues, is their guide into this world.
Atsuko’s postcards to her father back home, given voice by the actress, provide clues about what she is thinking. But mostly we learn by watching Atsuko watching everything around her. There is humor and irony in the language misfires, but without the bridge of a common language everyone says less, and that allows for unexpected stretches of silence — comfortable or uncomfortable, depending on the moment.
A turning point comes when the replacement for the broken car arrives. Rintaro, who has been something of a translator for us as well, heads on to San Francisco; Atsuko stays behind. She falls into the daily rhythms of Littlerock, finds romance, then a job, and you wonder if she might stay. But the filmmakers are not content just skimming the surface — there are other forces pulling at Atsuko too, ones that emerge only when the veneer of Littlerock is scraped away and she is reminded of the real distance she has traveled to get here.
None of this would have worked if the actress did not have such an expressive face and the filmmakers hadn’t known how to exploit that. By staying focused on her, following her glances, the shrug of a shoulder, a smile, they take us into her world. As Atsuko moves through the days and nights, as relationships are formed and broken, as disappointment and insight comes, we understand. Even when there are no words.