'Sophie and the Rising Sun': Sundance Review

Sophie and the Rising Sun still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
One part Old South race-relations parable, one part scenic spinsterotica.

A Japanese stranger causes unrest in a small Southern town.

Prejudice clashes with free-thinking in the WWII-era South in Maggie Greenwald's Sophie and the Rising Sun, an adaptation of Augusta Trobaugh's novel about a small-town woman who falls for a mysterious Asian newcomer. Though one cringes a bit that Julianne Nicholson's Sophie gets title billing while the character's equally intriguing partner, played by Takashi Yamaguchi (Letters From Iwo Jima), is referred to with generic indirectness, the picture works on its own old-fashioned moralistic terms. Moviegoers allergic to stories of enlightened white people helping defenseless minorities should steer clear, but its gentle righteousness will go down easily with cable auds.

In the fall of 1941, a Japanese-American man is tossed off a bus when it stops in a small Southern town. He's been beaten badly and is in need of care, and the only reason he gets it is that everyone assumes he's not Japanese but Chinese. Chinese is bad enough in little Salty Creek: Miss Anne (Margo Martindale), the open-minded newspaper columnist who lets police put him in her garden bungalow, has to replace a black housekeeper who quits because she won't wait "on no yellow foreigner."

Mr. Ota (Yamaguchi), who keeps his ancestry to himself once he can speak, proves to be the kind of magical minority one often finds in movies about prejudice: Handsome and strong, he's a magician in Anne's garden; he's a scholar of poetry and talented painter who knows any blues record a white woman might play him. He's well-mannered enough to win Miss Anne's admiration; he's so dreamy overall that her friend Sophie (Julianne Nicholson) falls for him in a flash.

An unmarried misfit who goes crabbing wearing men's clothing, Sophie has no friends but Anne. Still, she knows better than to share her infatuation with the older woman. Despite her discretion, it's not long before the whole town suspects something's up. "You stay away from that Chinaman," says Ruth Jeffers (Diane Ladd), the head biddy in a club of ersatz do-gooders called the Missionary Ladies Society.

This being late 1941, the tale can only go in one direction: After Pearl Harbor, patriotism and xenophobia are easily confused. Grover Ota takes another bad beating and must flee town.

The stage is set for a To Kill a Mockingbird-sized standoff between bigoted white people and tolerant ones. Lest Sophie not get credit for racial openness because she happens to have the hots for the man she's trying to rescue, the movie gives her a non-erotic backstory in which her childhood best friend was a black girl.

Those who can avoid being cynical about its racial dynamics, in which non-whites may be brilliant and talented but still require whites to stand up for them, may find things to appreciate in this reassuringly liberal pic. There's Wolfgang Held's photography, for instance, which makes the most of willowy locations, and the chance to see Martindale stretch out in a role bigger than she usually gets. As Sophie, Nicholson might have strayed further from the self-conscious repression we've seen in Masters of Sex; were she a more lively character, we might not mind the movie's suggestion that this is her story, with those who change her life mere supporting players.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Ever Green, Nancy Dickenson Pictures
Cast: Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Lorraine Toussaint, Takashi Yamaguchi, Diane Ladd, Joel Murray
Director-screenwriter: Maggie Greenwald
Producers: Brenda Goodman, Nancy Dickenson, Lorraine Gallard, Maggie Greenwald
Director of photography: Wolfgang Held
Production designer: Darcy Scanlin
Costume designer: Pauline White-Kassulke
Editor: Keith Reamer
Composer: David Mansfield
Casting director: Donna Morong
Sales: Cinetic Media

Not rated, 115 minutes