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Parents who lose sleep worrying what their teenage kids are getting up to behind closed doors may want to avoid Atsushi Ueda’s “A Girl on the Shore.” Though it’s not as scandalous as Larry Clark’s “Kids,” which jolted 1990s audiences with its lurid depiction of sexed-up teens rampaging around New York, this junior high school drama isn’t afraid to let it all hang out.

Fourteen-year-old Koume Sato (Ruka Ishikawa) is an ordinary schoolgirl living in a dead-end seaside town, who seems to be undergoing her sexual awakening in reverse. After a humiliating rejection by an older student, she embarks on a purely carnal relationship with classmate Keisuke Isobe (Yuzu Aoki), a doleful loner with absent parents and a spacious bedroom that’s perfect for after-school trysts.

Keisuke has confessed feelings for Koume in the past, but she isn’t interested in romance — not initially, at least. Her partner’s willingness to experiment is a bigger draw; before long, they’ve tried every conceivable position, even sneaking off for a quickie in the toilets at school, but are still working up to their first kiss.

A Girl on the Shore (Umibe no Onna no Ko)
Rating
Run Time 107 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

It’s a long way from the sweetness and virginal innocence of the typical Japanese teen romance, and presented without a hint of moralizing. But while they’re certainly candid, these scenes never ring true. Watching the pair go about their business made me think of the well-practiced adult lovers reuniting for one last fling in Haruhiko Arai’s “It Feels So Good” (2019), which is a weird vibe to be evoking.

Ishikawa — whose Koume isn’t so far from the older character she played in Takashi Koyama’s recent “Colorless” — does her best to act younger than her age, but she radiates an aura of petulance that’s rather off-putting. Aoki’s Keisuke comes across as a self-obsessed jerk, which feels just right. The support cast mostly plays it broad, and could almost be acting in a different film.

“A Girl on the Shore” is based on a manga by Inio Asano (“Goodnight Punpun”), whose unflinching explorations of psychology and sexuality have earned him a sizable following. Ueda — who also co-wrote the script — doesn’t so much adapt the manga as use it as a storyboard, barely altering the narrative, while keeping much of the dialogue and re-creating some scenes frame for frame.

I’m not sure what was supposed to be gained in the translation, but something has definitely been lost. While Ueda mostly gets the surface details right, he doesn’t manage to capture the melancholic ache at the heart of Asano’s story, or its dead-on evocation of the messy, contradictory emotions of adolescence.

A narrative that flowed smoothly on the page feels much jerkier here, without a consistent atmosphere to bind it all together. For each scene that works, including a typhoon sequence played to the strains of Happy End’s “Kaze o Atsumete,” there’s another that lands with a clunk.

There’s been an unfortunate tendency with recent film adaptations, at least in Japan, for directors to let their source material do all the heavy lifting, seemingly forgetting that they’re working in a different medium with its own strengths and limitations. “A Girl on the Shore” never rises to the challenge of its risky subject matter. It’s a film that speaks frankly, but doesn’t know what it wants to say.

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