After their rental car breaks down, Japanese brother and sister Rintaro and Atsuko are stranded for two days in the dead-ender California town of Littlerock, where the chief commodities are "partying," throwing rocks, and (for the few forward-minded) dreaming about being anyplace else. They find themselves at a rowdy party of townies, drawing Atsuko, who speaks no English whatsoever, into a group of brodude locals. Two of the guys immediately set their eyes on her. One is Cory, the sort of awkward misfit who's likely doomed to be somebody's victim all his life. The other is handsome, laconic Jordan, for whom her feelings are, for a while, significantly warmer. The siblings split when Rintaro insists they continue their planned trip to San Francisco but Atsuko chooses to stay with her new friends that, she tells him, are unlike their friends back home.
Even at only 83 minutes, this small, quiet character piece stretches its quantity of story rather thin. But not long after I began wondering where all this was going the final moments arrived, and with them some pleasing resonances and a nicely restrained reveal about the purpose of the siblings' trip, which seeks to perhaps resolve a generation-scarring family history.
For Littlerock, director Mike Ott took the Someone to Watch prize at the Indie Spirit Awards, and I can nod agreeably to that. He frames some striking images, and he deftly handles a low-key mood that hums with a muted tension, pulling us through. His amateur cast also delivers plenty to feel good about here. The film is ultimately too slight to leave a lasting dent in my memory, but I can't deny that this warm look at dislocation and communication is well crafted and carefully performed.
Here's my one significant SIFF disappoint so far, and the fact of that has me sitting here wondering where I went wrong as a viewer as much as where the film went wrong for me.
Mathieu Amalric has been on my Go See list ever since The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, so his presence here as not just the star but also the writer-director put On Tour near the top of my SIFF Go See roster. That and its milieu of live-stage showbiz performers, in this case a troupe of American New Burlesque stars — played by authentic American New Burlesque stars — touring the harbor towns of France with their troubled, self-destructive manager Joaquim (Amalric). Amalric derived his "dramedy" story from a memoir by Colette. At the 2010 Cannes Amalric took the main film critics prize as well as the Best Director Award for On Tour. You watch that trailer and how could you not put this one on your Oh-hell-yeah list? Everything here seemed sure-fire to reel me right in.
But instead, On Tour managed to feel wearyingly longer than its 111 minutes. Joaquim's personal conflicts with his past associates, the bridges he burned long ago now that he desperately needs one after an important performance venue has been taken away from him, came off as fragmented, under-supported and, by the three-quarter mark, just so much empty sound and fury. Amalric himself is quite fine as always, and imbues Joaquim, a selfish and self-defeating dick for the most part, with the charm of a once-great impresario now permanently on the skids he greased himself somewhere along the way. Yet the film could have got on just as well without Joaquim, I think, and I probably would have enjoyed it more had that been the case.
Because far more interesting are the burlesque performers, the true-blue artistes playing (after a fashion) themselves: Mimi Le Meaux, Kitten on the Keys, Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, Evie Lovelle, and Roky Roulette. They are independent-minded professionals getting by in a tough game through brassy tenacity, purposefulness, and their individual singing, dancing, tassel-twirling talents. They come through the screen with greater naturalism, life, and dimension than Joaquim, and with half the script wordage.
Early on, one of the performers shouts to recalcitrant Joaquim from the rehearsal stage, "We don't need you. The show is our show." If only On Tour had taken that as its premise and spine, bringing the performers and their stories to the fore while delivering on the potential of their separation from the manager whose personal failings are at best stalling their careers (their longed-for big debut in Paris is quashed by his unexplicated past history there). That would have been the movie I'd wanted to see.
For a "road movie," On Tour doesn't actually seem to go anywhere. There are hints and feints toward revealing backstory behind the character of Joaquim and, among his performers, soulful Mimi, but they remain loose strands only. The level of narrative we do get seems unconcerned with following through on whatever strands it presents. What's here isn't enough to prevent On Tour from feeling, to me, as though it's the rough and protracted middle third of a three-part story about choices, making good, and sequined showbiz grit.
It's a colorful but frayed feather boa with both ends clipped.
Music: Sondheim, Company (2007)
Near at hand: almond flax muffins