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Almost a Miracle
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by Jay Seaver

"Almost disconcertingly good."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's always the ducks. No matter what the cartoon, or movie, or what, the ducks will be the funniest part. They don't actually make themselves known until relatively late, but the teenagers in this movie give them a run for their money, making for a high-school comedy that, for all of its eccentricities, often gets at the heart of what it means to be growing up and finding oneself.

Most notable is Hajime Machida (Kanata Hosoda), who is helpful and altruistic to the point where folks really don't know what to make of him. He winds up at the infirmary at the same time as Nana Inohara (Nagisa Sekimizu), and while something seems to spark, Machida immediately makes it weird. Meanwhile, Ryota NIshino (Taiga Nakano) likes Inohara but accidentally sends his letter declaring it to Machida, recently-dumped Sakura Takashima (Mitsuki Takahata) likes Machida but is liked by Yu Himuro (Takanori Iwata), and a struggling writer (Koichi Sato) thinks that there's a story in all this.

The teens are a bunch of lovable weirdos trying to figure themselves out, sometimes from odd starting points, and the compulsively altruistic Machida is intriguing for how he's such an extreme character who is such an odd type that one might find him hard to believe in, at least compared to some of the others - the cynical, gossiped-about Inohara is certainly much more immediately recognizable. It's often hard to be sure just what to make of Machida's broad-ranging generosity, especially since Kanata Hosoda's performance often makes it clear that Machida is doing what he has been told he should do, but there's not a contrasting "real Machida" behind it. It's a bit of a put-on, but also genuine. It's often easier to recognize the suspicion and confusion in Inohara's reactions; Nagisa Sekimizu plays a more conventional complex teen.

That Machida is unconventional lets the audience examine teenagers' growing pains from a different angle and maybe see something new - that has honest trouble figuring out how to put the girl he likes over others is not entirely different from other first love stories. The whole unusual group often threatens to get too big to handle, and the whole thing occasionally gets twistedly meta because of how teen dramas have warped both our expectations of teens and how they actually behave. The eventual "community coming together" bit makes it work better than expected, though, even if it's kind of shoe-horned in to make the point that Machida's relentless, stubborn decency is making the world a better place.

That's a welcome response to how the film is often grappling with how such goodness can be frustrating, both in how a person needs to be able to love someone else more and that it's important to feel special as well. It's a question that we normally see in terms of burn-out and arguments over what "self-care" means, but it's framed as basic humanity here. It's a little thing that helps pull this out of just being about teenagers, and why the struggling writer doesn't wind up feeling completely out of place: Everybody feels bad about where they place the line between helping others and helping themselves, but it's kind of rare for pop culture to examine it in this way, rather than as other people selfishly demanding things. In that way, it's not far off from other films by director Yuya Ishii that have made it to North America where the characters are examining their place in the world

Also helping is that it's a frequently beautiful movie, especially during the flashbacks and night-time scenes that are obviously shot on film and look so good and distinct that the rest seems almost deliberately low-key, meant to blend in with every other Japanese high-school drama. Those scenes and other bits of filmmaking eccentricity, like the bluegrass that occasionally shows up on the soundtrack, give the film room to eventually reach a whimsical ending (with the ducks), but those moments are especially fantastic.

It's a little bit more of an overt flight of fancy than Ishii has tended to take, but one which gives the movie a memorable ending and lets other details stick a little better. "Almost a Miracle" is maybe not quite so brilliant to be accurately described by its English-language title, but it's certainly a different, interesting take on the manga-inspired high school story.

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originally posted: 01/17/20 01:35:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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