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Nowhere Girl
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by Jay Seaver

"Slow start, but one heck of a finish."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I enjoyed "Nowhere Girl", but I must admit to a sneaking suspicion that the filmmakers wind up saying less than they mean to even as they do so in singular, intriguing ways. Or is that simply criticizing the film for being unconventional? Whichever is the case, the eerie slow build to an exceptional finale is likely to stick in a viewer's head for a while, and that's probably worth noting on its own.

It follows Ai (Nana Seino), a student at an art school for girls who, because of her extraordinary talent and the post-traumatic stress disorder from an undescribed incident, is basically given the run of the place by the headmaster (Hirotaro Honda) in hopes that she will improve. The school nurse (Saeko "Lily" Kamada) does her best to treat Ai, although without much visible progress. There's no missing the resentment her special treatment draws, either from her teacher (Nobuaki Kaneko) or fellow students (Hinako Tanaka, Ayuri Yoshinaga, Kanon Hanakage).

On top of that, the school seems to literally be standing on unstable ground, and the auditorium where Ai is building a large sculpture project is slated for demolition. There is almost no way that this is not symbolic, and it's the sort of thing where director Mamoru Oshii and screenwriter Kei Yamamura (adapting a short film by Kentaro Yamagishi) may ultimately try to get a little too clever, especially as the film nears its conclusion: There is pointed mention made that Ai is having hallucinations, but these things also happen in scenes where she is not present. It can be fit together, although for a movie that is constantly encouraging the audience to look closer and try and fit the parts of a troubled mind together, it's not the tight construction one might hope for.

And Oshii does spend the first half of the movie or so presenting Ai as a mystery to be solved (in fact, referring to her as "Ai" comes from the film description; I don't recall anybody being given a name on screen). It's one with relatively few clues: mentions of PTSD without much hint as to where it comes from, and many not believing it's a real thing; a silent demeanor; comments that she has no close family. She's nearly-silent through much of the film and described as having gone from a genius to "an honor student wreck", a line which is a brilliant dig at the kind of pressure put on gifted teens and the harsh cut-offs for getting help with mental illness. Her wrist is bandaged, and when she's threatened, she responds in harsh fashion. Ultimately, what actually happened to her perhaps doesn't matter - perhaps the point being made is that not actively attempting to treat her is allowing the physical scars to heal but the mental ones to fester, with the still visuals and quiet classical score increasing tension despite likely being meant as soothing within the film.

Nana Seino handles portraying Ai as shell-shocked well enough, though her best moments come when the pent-up anger has a chance to come out. She's got a couple of quality antagonists on-screen, too - Nobuaki Kaneko may not be giving the most nuanced performance as the teacher, but his steadily increasing hostility makes him more monstrous as things go on. The other girls, especially Nobuaki Kaneko, give a clinic on awfulness coming from self-centeredness, while Lily has an interesting portrayal of the nurse as well-meaning and empathetic but probably on the wrong track.

That's all well-enough done, but kind of dry, so it's kind of a relief when Oshii decides to hit the audience with a visual manifestation of the turmoil in Ai's mind and a thrill when he decides to go all-out doing so. Though the audience is briefly reminded of his anime background at the start of this sequence when he goes for the striking but static visual, he soon shows off why the producers hired Nana Seito for the part - as those who have seen Tokyo Tribe can attest, she's got amazing action chops for a young woman of twenty, selling some great martial arts as Ai takes down much larger guys. While Oshii may be reserved and philosophical in parts of his movies, when it comes time for action he likes to go big, and he certainly does so here; it's both impressive choreography and nifty jumping back and forth between scales while also challenging the audience to pay attention to the backgrounds and how the setting is changing as we either sink deeper into the recesses of Ai's mind or come out of them.

It's a bravura finish that some in the audience may have been waiting for somewhat impatiently, but looking at it, I'm not entirely sure whether it's a conclusion to the rest of the film or a diversion from it. Both the build and release are done well, and Oshii moves from one to the other well, but I'm not sure the whole is quite as good as its parts.

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originally posted: 07/23/15 00:44:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Mamoru Oshii

Written by
  Kei Yamamura

  Nana Seino
  Nobuaki Kaneko
  Hinako Tanaka
  Hirotaro Honda

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