Coming-of-age stories usually don’t focus on middle-aged women. Maybe that’s part of the odd charm of Japanese filmmaker Atsuko Hirayanagi’s feature-length adaptation of her 2014 short, Oh, Lucy! — a comedy dredging the depths of human isolation through a culture-clash narrative as unique as it is engaging. While Hirayanagi’s film falters substantially in a third act steeped in melodrama, at its core Lucy is a quirky comedy with none of the preconceptions of mass-market appeal that would have undermined such an effort in an American cinematic landscape that seems hellbent on excising anything remotely redolent of midbudget independent innovation.
Lucy follows Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), a woman on the verge of a midlife crisis who hasn’t quite realized just how close to the edge she is. Single, working a dead-end job with no prospects and no social connections beyond her niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) and sister Ayako (Kaho Minami), Setsuko’s life is one of quiet desperation. Even these limited familial connections represent little hope, as Ayako is a hardened woman who stole Setsuko’s boyfriend and Mika is an opportunist only interested in financially taking advantage of her spinster aunt. When Setsuko witnesses a suicide on her way to work, the stage is set for a dramatic upending of a stolid status quo.
Themes of intractable despair run heavily through the film, as Setsuko clings fervently to anything even vaguely resembling hope for a different life — not necessarily even a better one. When Mika convinces Setsuko to buy out her remaining English lessons from a questionably qualified tutor named John (Josh Hartnett), she sees the faintest glimmer of an opportunity. John is an affable American expat with easy charm and a lesson plan that subverts the staid traditions of Japanese social interactions, and when he starts to bring Setsuko out of her shell by giving her a blonde wig and a westernized alter ego named Lucy, she misinterprets his attention as romantic interest.
This is where Oh, Lucy! begins to go off the rails — not because of Setsuko’s awkward coupling with John, but because of the track it takes her down. Mika and John run off to LA, Setsuko and Ayako follow, and what ensues is a flimsy soap-opera-worthy intrigue involving an obvious love triangle, an almost inexplicable suicide attempt, a slightly more plausible suicide attempt and a painfully predictable ending.
But despite the missteps in Hirayanagi’s narrative development, Lucy succeeds on the basis of its flawed but relatable protagonist. Both star and director seem to have a deep understanding and genuine affinity for this character and her plight, and it’s that sense of emotional honesty that allows the film to supersede its relatively minor imperfections and become a transcendent character study of a demographic that remains unfortunately underrepresented in modern cinema. Not Rated. English and Japanese with English subtitles.
Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.