In 'Oh Lucy!,' A Woman Leaps, Wig-First, Across A Cultural Divide In writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi's movie, a depressed Tokyo office drone discovers an impulsive American persona when she takes an ESL course. The result is "quiet, and a little devastating."
NPR logo In 'Oh Lucy!,' A Woman Leaps, Wig-First, Across A Cultural Divide

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In 'Oh Lucy!,' A Woman Leaps, Wig-First, Across A Cultural Divide

Shinobu Terajima stars in Oh Lucy! — a complex, comic, and dark character drama about cross-cultural exchange. Film Movement hide caption

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Film Movement

Shinobu Terajima stars in Oh Lucy! — a complex, comic, and dark character drama about cross-cultural exchange.

Film Movement

We Americans have certain ... ideas about the rest of the world, informed by movies, news reports and/or good old-fashioned prejudice. But it's important to remember the rest of the world has ideas about us, too. For example, that we're all loudmouthed "Wassssap?"-ing deadbeats who violate each other's personal space on a regular basis.

In Oh Lucy!, a very smart indie drama about cross-cultural exchange, these particular qualities emerge during an "American English" class in Tokyo, one held in a cavernous, neon-lit studio that likely doubles as a sleazy massage parlor. Here, Josh Hartnett's overly exuberant and dubiously qualified teacher John instructs his adult students on the finer points of the high-five and the hug (accompanied by the appropriate verbal cue: "I'm a hugger, what can I say?"). His two students, lonely souls both, don't know what to make of this gateway to the language of the Western world, but for our heroine Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), the class is an antidote, for no one else in her life gives her permission or even reason to hug. This is one of the few purely comedic scenes in an otherwise bleak film, yet it sets the mood perfectly for a narrative of displacement, in which a woman tries to find herself in another country's ways.

Writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi, adapting her own short film, was born and raised in Japan but attended film school at New York University. This bi-national influence plays out in a story that's fascinated by the meanings of individuality and happiness in both Japanese and American life. One character begins the film serving at a Tokyo maid cafe, casting "delicious spells" over the tea, and ends it as a leather-jacket-clad cool California chick. Oh Lucy! is at its core a fish-out-of-water story, a subgenre that has historically been too wacky for its own good. Yet thankfully the movie remains quiet, even a little devastating. Hirayanagi opens with a scene of a train suicide (of which there are many in Japan) and then shows Setsuko trudging through her life as a single, middle-aged office drone, fending off gifts of sweets from coworkers. She returns to this note of depression often enough to make you wonder why Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, lovers of big, broad American silliness, signed on as executive producers, but bless their hearts for reading the subtitles.

Setsuko has only enrolled in this English class as a favor to her niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), who is dating the teacher and needs the money from his lessons to move to America. But Setsuko doesn't know that's why she's paying for the lessons at the time; she's mostly happy to thumb her nose at her estranged sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) by involving herself in her daughter's life. Once she's in class, and John hands her a blonde wig straight out of a Wong Kar-wai film and has her pick a new "American" name out of a hat like so many Asians navigating the English-language world before her, the mute and guarded Setsuko discovers she likes being "Lucy," who can go places and do things her real-life counterpart never could. Like insult a co-worker, hop a plane to Los Angeles and hunt down John herself once he and Mika mysteriously vanish. If it weren't for Ayako's insistence on tagging along, coupled with her natural tendency to belittle and humiliate her own family, it's possible Lucy would have taken over completely.

One of the ways that American culture appears to have influenced Hirayanagi is in the basic building blocks of story. Once in L.A., Oh Lucy! follows the familiar beats of the oddball Sundance drama, complete with a long night of discovery, casual drug use and clandestine hook-ups. So the fact that the Sundance Institute helped support the film's production is hardly surprising, although one hopes this isn't a harbinger for future American indie imperialism. The qualities that hold true are the subtle details of the script and the compelling performances. As Setsuko/Lucy, Terajima gives a remarkable, internalized depiction of depression that gives way to impulsiveness. She knows how to be comic yet assertive when speaking in a halting English, then easily pivot to the snark and sadness she imbues in her native tongue. Hartnett is a gem here, as well: His character has the most complicated backstory, and he peels back his layers brilliantly, so that we see how pathetic, yet oddly dignified, his predicament is. John tacitly acknowledges that his interest in Japanese culture has pretty much just turned into him chasing after young Japanese women, but he also has a great scene in a diner where he chastises a server for pretending not to understand his foreign companions.

Oh, Lucy! also points the way forward for how to tell compelling stories about women of a certain age, without dumbing down its core. It follows similar beats as the 2016 sleeper hit Hello, My Name is Doris, but that film relied too heavily on the talents of lead Sally Field to help carry a bland script and presentation. Here, Hirayanagi gives her lead respect by framing her specific dilemma in a way that feels sincere. The America that Setsuko discovers, a Tangerine-like SoCal of crummy motels and dingy tattoo parlors, dares her to embrace it. And so she contorts herself until she does.