Veteran indie writer-director Maggie Greenwald’s best-known films — “The Ballad of Little Jo” and “Songcatcher” — are period pieces, fish-out-of-water romances. And all of her films have the refreshing novelty of being told from a female point of view.
“Sophie and the Rising Sun” is further proof that “an artist is someone who pounds in the same nail, over and over again.” It’s a timid, tired but a tender-hearted wartime romance that should have more edge than its subject promises.
Margo Martindale has a secure place among the ladies with hobbies in sleepy 1941 Salty Creek, S.C. She’s a well-off widow with a garden column in the newspaper, devoted acolytes in the Garden Club and one really good friend.
Julianne Nicholson (“Black Mass”), who co-starred with Martindale in “August: Osage County,” is Sophie, a free spirit who harvests her own blue crabs, dabbles in watercolors and quietly mourns a sweetheart who died 23 years before “in the Great War.”
And then this Asian fellow tumbles off the bus, bloodied and beaten, and Miz Anne (Martindale) is convinced to do the Christian thing and take him in.
The stranger (Takashi Yamaguchi) is barely conscious. And everybody, from the cop (Joel Murray) who finds him to the ladies around town, figure they know who this guy is. So does Anne.
“I’ve got a Chinaman in my cottage.”
But knowing the time setting, taking a long hard look at the man and knowing he’s been beaten, we guess he’s Japanese long before the Palmetto State provincials do. His first uttered word, “Ota,” confirms it.
Anne and Sophie and later Anne’s maid (Lorraine Toussaint) try to keep that information quiet, especially after that “date which will live in infamy” passes.
Ota, being Japanese-American, has garden skills, which endear him to Anne. He likes to paint, which plants the seed of romance in Sophie’s lonely heart.
Can they protect Ota from the town’s rage after Pearl Harbor? Diane Ladd is Ruth, the hateful busybody who insists Sophie keep her distance from the newcomer. But Ruth has her own burdens, caring for a burned-beyond-repair son wounded in the Great War.
The setting is intriguing, and there’s nice period detail — including actual radio broadcasts about Pearl Harbor and its aftermath. The few jokes, about everything one can make with crab, are feeble in the extreme.
“Sophie” has the slack pacing of a Sleepy Time Down South story, and only livens up in a couple of blasts of melodramatic violence. The characters are more than caricatures, but not by much.
And the actors are, to a one, better than the archetypes this stultifyingly unsurprising script (based on an Augusta Trobaugh novel) has them play. There is a little suspense about where things are headed, and just one mild twist in the proceedings.
About the best one can say about “Sophie and the Rising Sun” is that Greenwald & Co. made a film that shows more care than the source material deserves.
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality and nudity
Cast: Julianne Nicholson, Takashi Yamaguchi, Margo Martindale, Diane Ladd, Lorraine Toussaint, Joel Murray
Running time: 1:45