Review: 'Nowhere Girl' [Fantasia Festival 2015]

There were at least five walkouts from the screening of Nowhere Girl that I attended. Taking into account the enthusiastic audience that the Fantasia Festival attracts – the average person might not be as keen to check out an odd, Japanese language film – that’s a strong indication that this is nothing approaching a crowd-pleaser.

The trouble with this film is likely the pacing. It’s slow, deliberate. More than once, director Mamoru Oshii is content to allow soft piano music to drift through the scene while showing us busts modeled in the Greco-Roman style, and for minutes at a time. There is certainly a point to it, and for those willing to sit the film out, there’s a real beauty to those dreamy moments. But there are many of those moments.

Throughout, we’re driven by a need to discover the resolution of the central mysteries the film offers. Who is Ai (Nana Seino), and what is wrong with her? She is given special privileges at her arts school, is bullied by classmates, and targeted by her teacher. She’s scarred both mentally and physically, singled out in every way, and the growing frustrations of those around her, seemingly caused by having to deal with her, bring the action to a slow boil.

Nana Seino does a fine job in her role. Her anger and confusion are believable, and she is truly menacing in those flashes we see of the dangerous true nature of her character. The rest of the cast has less to do (apart from some hilarious creepiness from the teacher), but they do a good job with what they have.

Overall, though the acting and plot are fine, they’re hardly the focal point. This is a visual experience more than it is one in which narrative storytelling is paramount. The slow, lingering pace of the camerawork and its accompaniment by soft classical music rely heavily on the gorgeous aesthetics of the cinematography and set design.

This is a beautiful film, and that beauty is used both as a deliberate contrast to the confusion and pain Ai experiences, and also as an anchor for the audience. Make something pretty enough and there’s less of an urgent need to keep the film rolling at a more usual pace, to adhere to the standard approaches to telling a story.

Still, as with any endeavours that tend a little closer to the artistic side of things than toward the mainstream, there are risks inherent to the atypical approach. It’s tough to say whether Nowhere Girl fully sticks the landing. There’s so little that feels concrete in this film, and though there is a pretty jarring third act shakeup in the pace and tone of the film, the slowness and confusing nature of the proceedings ultimately make it so that the sudden resolution of the film is a bit difficult to accept.

It’s a good film, with some lovely images and good performances that make this a worthwhile experience. Ultimately, though, the ending doesn’t quite satisfy, and given that this movie delights in taking its time, perhaps a longer cut (it's only 85 minutes long) might have been able to deliver a more complete conclusion.