*** (out of ****)
In the autumn of 1941, Grover Ohta (Takashi Yamaguchi), a Japanese-American, is found nearly beaten to death, in a small town in South Carolina. He cannot recall how he arrived in the town or who beat him up but his presence will set off a chain of tumultuous events in the social drama, “Sophie and the Rising Sun” (2016).
Given the recent headlines in the newspaper, concerning travel bans and indefinite suspension of Syrian refugees from entering the country, it is unfortunate that “Sophie and the Rising Sun” will seem relevant to audiences, illustrating there as always been a fear of “the other”, in director Maggie Greenwald’s tale of xenophobia, interracial love and racism set against the backdrop of America entering World War II.
In a town, unsure what to do with him and suspicious of “foreigners”, it is decided the best place for Grover to heal is in the home of the town’s widower, Anne (Margo Martindale), who is herself initially hesitant to be burdened with such a duty but reluctantly agrees, positioning her to be the movie’s moral center.
The “Sophie” referred to in the title is a young woman with a mysterious past (played by Julianne Nicholson) whom at first, we suspect may also be prejudice against foreigners and Grover in particular. It is Sophie and Grover’s identity the movie will take its time revealing.
“Sophie and the Rising Sun” is well intended and a modest movie but in its third act, feels as if it loses some of its focus. Much is made of Anne listening to news on the radio of war in Europe and when Pearl Harbor is attacked, the town, which thought Grover was Chinese, learns he is Japanese, proclaims him the enemy, while misguided patriotic pride causes violence. At this point the interracial romance is given more screen time, pushing the war time sentiment aside and becomes one of those movies about a small town and a nosey neighbor (played by Diane Ladd) interfering in the love affair of two people, spreading gossip the woman isn’t “acting like a lady”.
There is much to enjoy during the movie’s first two acts, especially the social message, and the wonderful performances given by Martindale, Nicholson and Ladd. While neither Martindale or Nicholson, who co-starred in “August: Osage County” (2013), are leading ladies, the movie allows them the opportunity to shine. It is worth the price of admission just to see the performances.
Director Greenwald, may be best known for “Songcatcher” (2000), which had some similar themes, including prejudice of the other, in that movie’s case people of the Appalachian Mountains, gives her movie a sensitive, romantic quality which seems much more interested in its female characters and their relationships rather than the romance between the male and female character.
Those with a knowledge of film history, may watch “Sophie and the Rising Sun” and think of the multiple Academy Award nominated film, “Sayonara” (1957) starring Marlon Brando, about an Air Force pilot who falls in love with a Japanese woman. That movie is a classic, often considered one of the most significant Hollywood movies of its time to address interracial romance, and deals with the topic head on. I can’t really say the same about “Sophie and the Rising Sun”. This is more of a movie about the bond between women with war and prejudice in the background.