Oh Lucy!

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 Oh Lucy!

Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) lives a mundane existence as an anonymous office worker in Tokyo. When her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsana), asks her to take English lessons as a favor, she agrees. At the unusual place of education, she meets the teacher, John (Josh Hartnett), and is smitten with his relaxed affability. He suddenly leaves, heading back to the US, and Setsuko decides to follow in “Oh Lucy!”

If you watch the theatrical trailer for “Oh Lucy!” you will see it put forth as a charming, goofy little comedy. And, you would be right. Except for one thing, there is far more layering and nuance in this first-rate character study of the title character by Shinobu Terajima.

Setsuko Kawashima lives a lonely life, trudging to work every day, doing her job and trudging back home again. When she agrees to take English lessons for Mika, her life will change and she will find the love that has eluded her for her entire life. Or, so she thinks.

I do not want to give anything away about the story by first-time feature writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi except that it will keep you focused on its star and all the things that go right and wrong (sometimes very wrong) for her. Terajima is marvelous and Josh Hartnett gives a warm, amiable performance as the unlikely love interest.

This engaging road movie spans two continents and an ocean, a really big ocean, making this an impressive achievement for newcomer Hirayanagi. I give it a B.

Single, middle-aged Setsuko Kawashima (Shinobu Terajima) witnesses a suicide on her way to work at her mind-numbing job where younger colleagues whisper behind the backs of old maids like her.  She leaves early to meet her effervescent niece Mika Ogawa (Shioli Kutsuna), who first pleads for 600K yen, then convinces her to take a trial English lesson.  John's (Josh Hartnett) class is unconventional, American in its emphasis on physical affection, and Setsuko responds so strongly, that when he departs unexpectedly - along with her niece - Setsuko and the sister she has long resented follow them to L.A. in "Oh Lucy!"

This well deserved nominee for Film Independent Spirit Awards' Best Female Lead and Best First Feature from cowriter (with Boris Frumin)/director Atsuko Hirayanagi (adapting her 2014 short) never goes quite where we expect.  It's a comedy steeped in suicide and loneliness that takes on deeper and deeper meaning as it goes along, ending on a moving, hopeful note.  Terajima creates an indelible character, one who embraces John's ways as 'Lucy,' the American name she receives in class along with a curly blonde wig.  But are her impulses leading her in the right direction?

The film opens with a jolt, a dejected looking Setsuko one of many wearing distancing surgical masks on a railway platform.  Suddenly a nicely dressed young man grasps her shoulders from behind, whispers 'Goodbye' in her ear and jumps in front of the arriving train.  At work, older coworker Yoshiko (Miyoko Yamaguchi) notes she's never seen one herself, relaying the relative frequency of this kind of event.  After meeting Mika where she works serving English tea with Japanese twee, Setsuko heads to her free English lesson in an odd building that looks more brothel than schoolroom.  John begins the lesson with a hug, a distantly non-Japanese greeting.  By the time she's left, 'Lucy' has begun talking 'relaxed' slang and met incoming classmate Takeshi Komori (Kôji Yakusho, 1996's "Shall We Dance?," "Babel") aka 'Tom.'

After discovering John's taken off with her niece, Setsuko joins Yoshiko's retirement party where she announces some ugly truths (later, guilt-stricken, she shouts 'I'm sorry' to the woman across the subway platform, a tense moment).  She arrives at her cramped, chaotically cluttered apartment to a postcard from Mika inviting her to visit sunny California.  Mika's mother Ayako (Kaho Minami) arrives soon thereafter, determined to give her sister the money she gave her daughter back.  There is clearly resentment on both sides and when Hannah (Megan Mullally), sitting between Ayako at the window and Setsuko on the aisle suggests they sit together, Setsuko informs her that Ayako stole her boyfriend and married him.

When the two arrive at Mika's return address, though, John is astonished, then tells them Mika left him.  Ayako locates another postcard from her daughter, rents a car and the odd trio take off for its San Diego address.  About the only wise thing Lucy will do is send Tom a postcard.

Hirayanagi juggles tone throughout, her protagonist's need to break free of societal constraints spewing forth in manners both joyful and dreadful.  But even though Lucy makes some cringe worthy choices, Terajima keeps us on her side, the character just too delightful to overlook.  She's an unseen woman worthy of attention.  Minami's Ayako is a critical pill whose corrosive relationship with her sister frequently erupts into physical slapstick.  Hartnett's John is an optimistic romantic with a hidden past, the actor overcoming his underwritten character.  And then there is Yakusho, one of the great Japanese actors, lending Tokyo itself a humanity otherwise lacking.

"Oh Lucy!'s" many parallels and themes all lead back to where it began, but the outstretched arms at film's end are reaching in the opposite direction.

Grade:  B
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