Back in 2010, Mike Ott's second feature film, "Littlerock," made a considerable impression on the indie-film world. Beyond winning top awards at AFI FEST and Independent Film Festival of Boston, "Littlerock" won both the "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You" prize at the Gotham Awards and the "Someone to Watch" award at the Independent Spirits -- pretty much the holy duo of support for an emerging American indie filmmaker.
Two years later, Ott has followed up the promise that came with those accolades with "Pearblossom Highway," which had its world premiere at the just-wrapped Vienna International Film Festival last week before heading to AFI FEST for its American debut this past weekend.
The film, in large part, continues both the themes and approach of "Littlerock," a risky move that pays off quite nicely. Ott again collaborates with Atsuko Okatsuka (co-screenwriter and lead actress) and Cory Zacharia (the lead actor) on "Pearblossom," blending both spontaneous improvisation and real-life elements of the lives of the actors into his and Okatsuka's screenplay.
"I was talking to someone the other night who said something to the degree of, 'You're not interested in making another kind of movie,'" Ott said in Vienna the night before he headed back to Los Angeles for AFI FEST. "I mean, I don't necessarily want to five years from now be making movies out in the desert with me and Cory and Atsuko and a video camera. However, at the end of the day, I want to make films... I've just met so many first-time filmmakers that have more success than me -- or less success than me, for that matter -- that still haven't made another movie. So initially I just wanted to make something."
Ott and Okatsuka cut and pasted ideas together for a while as they developed the story of Cory and Anna (Zacharia and Okatsuka), variations on the characters each portrayed in "Littlerock." Like that film, this one is set in a small California desert town (the title refers to the only highway leading out of it), and deals with themes of immigration, disillusionment and coming of age. Cory is a twentysomething who's having trouble going anywhere (his main goal is to get on a reality show), and who may or may not be significantly confused about his sexuality. Anna is a Japanese immigrant who's taken up prostitution so she can save money to go back to Japan and visit her sick grandmother. The film culminates in the two of them heading to San Francisco together to visit Cory's long-absent father.
Despite what it takes on, the film never feels heavy-handed. It also never feels as if Ott and his collaborators are simply repeating "Littlerock." "Pearblossom" easily stands on its own as a distinctive and engaging film that works so well because of the collaborative, unconventional apporach behind it and the organic-feeling cinema that results.