Tatsushi Omori’s new coming-of-age drama, “Under the Stars,” is being billed as a return to the big screen for its star, Mana Ashida, after a six-year hiatus.

Once ubiquitous in films and TV dramas, with the 2010 Nippon Television drama “Mother” being her launching pad, the actress decided to enter an elite high school and cut back on her showbiz commitments.

In “Under the Stars,” which is based on Natsuko Imamura’s novel about a girl raised by parents who are earnest followers of a cult, 16-year-old Ashida is almost unrecognizable as the cute kid who once won the hearts of millions.

Under The Stars (Hoshi No Ko)
Director Tatsushi Omori
Run Time 110 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Oct. 9

The teenage years are perilous for former child stars — the career flame-out of Shirley Temple being a famous example — but Ashida turns in a laser-focused turn as the conflicted protagonist. The effortlessly likable kid is still there, but the serious actor looms larger.

Not that “Under the Stars” is the sort of dark drama that might be expected from the subject matter. As he did in his 2018 hit “Every Day a Good Day,” a heartwarming film set in the tea ceremony world, Omori undercuts expectations, while giving the proceedings a sense of lived-in reality. Despite their fervent belief in what is clearly a money-for-miracles con, the parents (Masatoshi Nagase and Tomoyo Harada) of third-year middle school student Chihiro (Ashida) are decent, caring people.

And Chihiro gladly drinks the cure-all water supplied by the cult, while feeling no urge to butt heads with her parents like so many on-screen teens.

Still, she is forced to abandon childish illusions, make difficult choices and do the tough work of growing up. Her story has an episodic feel, while shifting back and forth between her childhood and her present, but it also has a strong center in Ashida’s performance. Her usual expression may be clouded as her character battles inner storms, but it is never the movie adolescent default of sullen or dull.

Chihiro’s story begins from infancy during which she suffers from severe eczema. Her parents, on the recommendation of Dad’s work colleague, cure it with the aforementioned water. (Having seen my own kids battle this condition, I found this the hardest part of the story to swallow.)

They become firm believers in both the water and the cult that sells it, even after Chihiro’s unbelieving uncle (Kohei Otomo) exposes the former as a fraud and her older sister (Aju Makita), who supported his intervention, quietly and permanently vanishes.

Flash forward to Chihiro in middle school. She now has a fast friend in “Nabe-chan” (the single-named Ninon), a classmate admired for her beauty and height, but with no prejudices whatsoever. Chihiro also has a crush on her math teacher (Masaki Okada), a dreamboat whose portrait she draws obsessively in her notebook.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around that crush, though Chihiro’s most basic dilemma, going back years, concerns her parents. She willingly and happily goes to cult meetings, where she has longtime friends and mentors, including a mysteriously smiling woman (Haru Kuroki) said to have hypnotic powers, but she knows painfully well that outsiders consider her parents strange.

Will she finally reject them and their beliefs, which are now inseparable? It sounds corny, but is completely true: The answer lies in the stars.

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