SOPHIE AND THE RISING SUN, written and directed by Maggie Greenwald (who adapted the story from a novel of the same name) was a big surprise for me. Mostly because I had no idea that one of my favorite actresses, Margo Martindale, is the co-lead of the film. With such amazing guest appearances on THE AMERICANS and THE GOOD WIFE, as well as a supporting role in AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (also starring Julianne Nicholson), I would be happy if Margo Martindale starred in every single movie at Sundance.
The film opens in Autumn of 1941. A badly injured Asian man is dropped off at a bus station in the small town of Salty Creek, South Carolina, and the townspeople don’t know what to do. They haven’t seen a “Chinaman” like him before, and their close-mindedness is at odds with their southern hospitality. So a kind widow, with a penchant for gardening, named Ann (Margo Martindale) takes the man in. We later find out he is a Japanese-American citizen named Grover Ohta (Takashi Yamaguchi), who was in New York City to buy trees for his dream apple orchard. But he was attacked by a group of men and sent on a bus out of the city, ending up in South Carolina. As he recovers, Grover begins to endear himself to Ann when he uses his green thumb to help her create a magnificent garden. He also develops a romantic relationship with Ann’s next door neighbor Sophie (Julianne Nicholson) through their mutual love of painting.
Sophie lost her love in World War I and hasn’t been involved with anyone since. After her parents died, she inherited their house, as well as their debt. But because she doesn’t have the money to upkeep the property, it is falling down around her. It’s clear that the only thing keeping her in town is the fact that everything is so familiar. As one who always looked beyond the color of someone’s skin, Sophie struggles with the town’s bigoted atmosphere. The prejudice in town is amplified even more after December 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the Americans entered World War II. Now Grover and everyone who befriends him are in danger by racist townspeople, looking for a scapegoat. Will Sophie and Grover be able to live their lives together or will the anti-Japanese sentiment in America, showcased in the microcosm of Salty Creek, break them apart?
Unfortunately, even with the fantastic performances from the cast and the beautiful message of acceptance, the film felt a little too safe and familiar. Not to mention, the predictable (yet still sweet) romantic relationship that was supposed to be the foundation of the movie was underdeveloped and inevitably overshadowed by the tremendous camaraderie between the three lead actresses. Of course, the focus of the movie was to illustrate the effects of racism and gossiping in a small southern town, but the real strength of the movie was in the female relationships; and that is a testament to Greenwalt’s writing. She obviously made it a point to write three-dimensional female characters and did such a good job, it made you want more of that and less of the obvious romance. We see star-crossed love stories like this time and again in films, but it isn’t as often that we see a film featuring three strong women with backstories portrayed onscreen.
The message of SOPHIE AND THE RISING SUN is incredibly timely, as it discusses the heartbreaking treatment of Japanese Americans before and after World War II. In fact, the voices of Salty Creek’s most vicious, anti-Japanese citizens sound a lot like the vitriolic message of a certain orange-skinned presidential candidate on the campaign trail today; only instead of Japanese, the focus is now on Muslims. I only wish the film found a way to tell the story using its strength, the relationship between the three lead female characters, instead of going for the obvious romantic angle.
My Review: C+