This art school-set Japanese drama has a sensational third act, but getting there is like watching paint dry.
Nowhere Girl (Fantasia Review)
The plight of the teenage girl has been a staple for filmmakers for decades. Despite occasional attempts at changing the scenery in these films (the summer camp of 1980’s Little Darlings, the beauty pageant circuit of 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous, the rock-and-roll tour bus of 1982’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains), the most popular setting for the drama, angst, love, humor, chaos, friendship, and countless other things teen girls experience has been, and forever will be, school. The greatest teen girl films—films like 1988’s Heathers, 1995’s Clueless, and 2004’s Mean Girls, to name three—are all set in schools. This setting works so well because schools present natural opportunities for drama, angst, love, and other feelings. Throw in raging hormones, and you have near-endless narrative potential.
The latest entry that offers a learning institution as its backdrop, and features all the teenage girl backbiting of an American contemporary, comes from Japan: Mamoru Oshii’s Nowhere Girl (Tôkyô Mukokuseki Shôjo).
Ai (Nana Seino) is the misfit at her all-girl art school. She is so distant from her classmates, it’s difficult to tell if she suffers from crippling shyness or offensive aloofness, something that does her no favors in making friends. She is also far more talented than her classmates, which earns her special treatment by the school’s faculty. That special treatment includes allowing Ai to leave her classes to work on a secret art project.
This trio of factors—aloofness, talent, and preferential treatment—makes Ai the target of routine schoolgirl bullying. She rises above it, but as the harassment grows, and as one professor in particular shows his exhaustion with Ai’s special treatment, she begins to show signs she has other—more violent—talents.
If only her talents had manifested themselves earlier in the film. Even at a trim 85 minutes, Nowhere Girl is an arduous watch, suffocating under the director’s heavy-handed desire for soft, blanched, lingering shots set mostly to a placid piano score. This is the pace and tenor of the film’s first two acts. Scenes of an art class becomes watching paint dry, a character’s ponding becomes watching someone do nothing, and the uneventful becomes downright mundane. All set against the backdrop of too-soft whites and muted hues. It’s reminiscent of something from the eye of Nicolas Winding Refn, if Refn were forbidden from using color.
Visual style and pace aren’t the only problems that plague Nowhere Girl. The story, from Kentarô Yamagishi (original story) and Kei Yamamura (screenplay), is distinctly similar to another classic troubled teen-girl-centric film, 1976’s Carrie. Parallels are there (a misfit teen with mysterious abilities just can’t fit in and eventually snaps), and even the trailer suggests inspiration from the Brian De Palma film, but the story never congeals and thus is never propelled to the same places as Carrie. In fact, it’s never propelled anywhere. Dialogue, events, and character peculiarities in the first two acts are so vague, they confuse. It’s mostly made clear in the third act—to call it a “twist” is to dangle toes on the fringe of the literal meaning—but not due to deft storytelling tying it all together. Rather, there’s a sense of obligation that comes across in how it’s explained in (literally) the film’s final minutes. This movie gets the ending it wants, but it doesn’t earn that ending.
As for the meat of the third act, it is gloriously violent and the highlight of the film, with breathtaking fight choreography, intricate blocking and editing, and plenty of crimson to make a mess of all those bland settings. This is where Seino shines. While she is quite good as the despondent student in the film’s early stages, her physical presence is tremendous. The bloody fight sequence is a long one that incorporates gun, blade, and martial arts combat. The actress is up to the challenge, showing a physical deftness that rivals the skills of any modern-day action counterparts. It is highly stylized violence (in keeping with Asian action tradition), and it includes some of the best uses for human shields I’ve seen on film. Once the dust settles, it’s hard to believe the cute and quiet star is capable of packing such a punch, but pack it she does. Unfortunately, no other cast member is particularly memorable, which allows Seino to stand out all the more, but does nothing for the film overall.
Nowhere Girl is a victim of its own design. With a threadbare plot and no character development to speak of, Mamoru Oshii may have had little choice but to take the form-over-function approach. Sadly, instead of creating any sense of tension or atmosphere with his lingering lens, the director presents an exercise in tolerance for the viewer.
Nowhere Girl had its world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival on July 21st. To find out more about the festival, visit http://www.fantasiafestival.com