'Pearblossom Hwy' at SFIFF
(30 Apr 2013: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas San Francisco)
Pearblossom Hwy, director Mike Ott’s follow-up to Littlerock, is billed as a movie that champions downtrodden, aimless youth trying to survive in suburban desert communities north of Los Angeles. The film raises many important issues, from the abuse of nitrous oxide to the sorrow of not knowing one’s father to the tragedy of prostitution as a last-ditch employment option for immigrants who are awaiting citizenship exams and the right to work in the U.S. without restrictions. While actors Atsuko Okatsuka (Atsuko) and Cory Zacharia (Cory) turn in strong performances, the film leaves too many serious questions unanswered.
As we watch Pearblossom Hwy, we are either immediately drawn to or repulsed by Cory. A jobless young man who dreams of making it big with his punk band, Cory is the epitome of an aimless drifter. In the beginning of the film he says that he always wanted to be “a rebel without a cause,” but we have to confront the fact that he can never attain this romantic vision of self. This is actually one of the more problematic aspects of the movie precisely because we sense that Ott wants us to empathize with Cory, but we have a hard time doing so because he just isn’t all that likable. He has no interest in taking responsibility for himself as a human being, so why should we be interested?
In one memorable scene, Cory and Atsuko see a stand-up comedy show in San Francisco. The comedienne, who Cory had seen on TV, makes fun of him in that jibing way that stand-up comics often make fun of audience members. Unfortunately, the humor is washed from the scene because the comics’ observances are spot on. There is no exaggeration; we realize that we must choose to see Cory as she does (as a loser) or we must empathize with Cory despite the fact that he really doesn’t have a grip on his life. We encounter the same problem with Atsuko, though on a smaller scale. She doesn’t seem particularly interested in or affected by becoming a prostitute in order to earn money to visit her dying grandmother, so why should we care?
Ott’s emotional manipulations in the film are just that: Manipulations. We are supposed to feel for Cory because he has never had a relationship with his real father and we’re supposed to feel for Atsuko because she’s far away from home and can’t see her grandmother, who is very ill. Yet it’s difficult to care about the characters because they don’t care about themselves in anything other than an awkward, superficial sense. This isn’t a film about the ennui or desperation of the lost youth of desert California. It’s just a series of anecdotes about individuals whose actions apparently have no consequences.
It’s a shame, because Pearblossom Hwy could be a film about the ways in which we try to escape the social pressure to fall in line by sacrificing our very selves. Unfortunately, it never gets there.