Every meal we eat can’t be a knockout. The same goes for every film we watch.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The setting is a popular restaurant, one steeped in high standards and well-established mores. Enter our culinary hero, hard on luck and inexperienced, but also a burgeoning virtuoso. An outsider through and through, our protagonist finds a way into the kitchen. Despite some early fish-out-of-water stumbles, the cook earns respect. Reluctant nods of approval first come from the hero’s skeptical peers. Those nods soon turn into booming applause. By the end of the story, even its stone-faced villain, a symbol of the status quo at its worst, joins in the celebration. Barriers get broken. Our hero triumphs. The heart expands like a balloon.
This is, of course, a vague outline of Ratatouille, the finest food-centered movie since Big Night. Anthony Lucero’s feature-length debut East Side Sushi shares the above narrative structure with Brad Bird’s classic. Unfortunately, the side-by-side comparison isn’t flattering: Pixar’s rats cooked up a more enticing feast. Lucero, who wrote the screenplay, has crafted a plot worthy of a competent made-for-cable drama. Every setback and small triumph arrives with the regularity of Old Faithful and the punctuality of German public transit. And yet, East Side Sushi has warmth and charm on its side. The ingredients may not be the freshest, but the end product is at least executed with love.
The movie tells the story of Juana, a young, poor single mother living in East Oakland. We’re introduced to her in a sequence that reveals her punishing morning routine. Up at 3:50 AM, Juana whips up breakfast for her father, frosts a cupcake for her daughter’s lunch, rouses the moppet for school and sets off to run the family’s fruit cart. We quickly discover she prizes quality. Her lime juice is always squeezed by hand, never bottled. Her chopping skills are nimble and exact. After she’s robbed at gunpoint at the fruit cart, in a scene where the film’s clumsy score spoils the danger well before the appearance of a pistol, Juana decides to make a life change. She applies for a job at a bustling sushi restaurant, gets hired almost on the spot and begins her journey into unfamiliar cultural territory. Can a Latina succeed as a sushi chef when all the odds are stacked against her? Take a wild guess.
Played by Diana Elizabeth Torres, Juana is all eyes and lips. Forever peeking behind the restaurant’s curtains, she’s an observer and a surprisingly fast learner. But Juana does her homework. She reads cookbooks, cover to cover, in bed with her daughter (the adorable Kaya Jade Aguirre). She tests newfound skills on her unwitting family, with disastrous results. In a rare instance of genuine humor, her father (a gruff yet supportive Rodrigo Duarte Clark) pan fries the sushi-grade tuna she’s brought home, to her horror. Juana’s growing talents don’t go unnoticed at work. Before long, Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi), the restaurant’s stoic executive chef, takes her under his wing. He shows Juana how to inspect fish during a delivery, slice a cucumber just so and prepare rice to perfection.
Lucero is at his best when he presents this dialog-free training process. Juana fumbles, and then masters the delicate art of constructing nigiri and rolled sushi. Torres reacts to each new complication with an assured, I’ve-got-this twist of the mouth.
East Side Sushi’s world, not fantastical by intention, doesn’t often resemble our own. In his attempt to tackle Big Social Problems, Lucero instead distracts the viewer with a litany of bizarre, unanswered questions. Why, for example, doesn’t anyone own a cell phone? A quick call could have prevented an early mishap. I understand that Juana is of Mexican descent, but would she (not to mention her family) be so unfamiliar with sushi, a delicacy as exotic as General Tso’s chicken nowadays? More egregious is Aki, a professional chef based in California, and his bewilderment with tacos. Tacos? And then there’s the fundamental plot conflict that presents, first with shock and then self-congratulation, the preposterousness of a Latina working behind a sushi bar. Is it so crazy? Why don’t Juana’s outspoken naysayers ever bother to taste her food to confirm it’s garbage (which it’s not, obviously)? Late in the movie, she enters a “Top Chef”-style televised cooking competition. Have its fictional producers never watched any actual televised cooking competitions, with their casts that tend to be rainbows of diversity compared to what we see here? Oh, one last question. Why doesn’t the food in East Side Sushi ever look the least bit appetizing?
Every meal we eat can’t be a knockout. The same goes for every film we watch. Anthony Lucero should follow his protagonist’s lead. Practice may not always make perfect. Sometimes palatable can be good enough.