There’s a point in many teenagers’ lives where few things are more mortifying than the prospect of having to speak in public. High school freshman Shino (Sara Minami) has it worse than most. When she’s by herself, she can talk perfectly fine, even play-acting the conversations she wishes she was having with her fellow students. But when she’s called upon to introduce herself to the class at the start of term, she’s felled by a speech impediment so severe that she can barely get a word out.
While most of the students laugh — egged on by the self-appointed class clown, Tsuyoshi (Riku Hagiwara) — Kayo (Aju Makita) is more sympathetic. A self-possessed loner with musical ambitions, she gives Shino a notepad so she can write the words she’s struggling to say. When it turns out her new pal is a better singer than she is (Kayo, alas, isn’t the most tuneful of warblers), she suggests they start a band together.
“I want to be a musician,” she says, and Shino’s reply is enough to break your heart: “I want to be a normal high school student.”
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||110 mins|
Such are the dramatic stakes in “Shino Can’t Say Her Name,” adapted from Shuzo Oshimi’s semi-autobiographical manga by “100 Yen Love” screenwriter Shin Adachi. It’s a low-key but heartfelt film that has the good sense to take its protagonists’ problems and mood swings seriously. When Shino falls out with Kayo and goes on an extended sulk, the movie goes there with her and doesn’t feel the need to explain away her behavior.
The music scenes aren’t as good as the ones in Nobuhiro Yamashita’s “Linda Linda Linda,” still the gold standard for shambling student-band movies, but they supply a few choice moments. Shino and Kayo’s first public performance — when they do a run-through of the only song they’ve practiced, smile bashfully at each other and agree to play it again — has the kind of innocent sweetness that can’t be forced.
The film marks the feature debut of director Hiroaki Yuasa, who got his start working with Mamoru Oshii and seems to have inherited the latter’s penchant for muzzy, heavy-handed post-processing: There are scenes here that look like they were shot through a lo-fi Instagram filter. Yuasa at least has the good sense to take advantage of the film’s locations, including what must be one of the most attractively sited schools in the whole country, overlooking a harbor ringed by lush greenery on the coast of Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture.
He also makes the most of some capable lead actors. Minami does well in a technically demanding role, and viewers who feel cheated if a film doesn’t have any good crying scenes will be pleased to hear that she really goes the distance here (one word: boogers). However, I was even more impressed by Makita — previously seen in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “The Third Murder” — whose ability to convey complex emotions with just a subtle change of expression suggests she’s got a promising career ahead of her.
As it builds towards a climax that’s both histrionic and entirely earned, “Shino Can’t Say Her Name” starts to feel like an apt metaphor for every teen who has struggled to find their own voice. For Shino, that struggle is a very literal one, but it’s something a lot of us could relate to.