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Some university students choose their major to satisfy an intellectual itch or improve their career prospects, but for others it’s out of a simple desire to understand the world. That appears to be the case with Horigai (Yui Sakuma), a garrulous 22-year-old virgin who’s always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and seems incapable of understanding what makes people tick.

“You’re ignorant about others … zero imagination,” jeers a fellow student, not inaccurately, on learning that Horigai has landed a job as a child welfare caseworker. Naturally, she’s a sociology major.

Ryohei Yoshino’s “Eternally Younger Than Those Idiots” follows this red-haired naif through a belated coming of age, facilitated by her relationships with people whose problems and emotional baggage are weightier than her own.

Eternally Younger Than Those Idiots (Kimi wa Eien ni Soitsu-ra Yori Wakai )
Rating
Run Time 118 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

The most significant of these is with Inogi (the single-named Nao), a mousy philosophy student with a mischievous sense of humor and a troubled past. (As is often the case with Japanese college students, the characters address each other solely by family name.) With her loose, flowing hair and ever-present wooly hat, she looks like an archetypal hipster — but first impressions, as the film continually reminds us, can be deceptive.

Inogi isn’t the only one with surprises in store for Horigai. A friend-of-a-friend at a university party draws her attention, but the next time she hears about him, he’s died. A coworker from her part-time job unburdens his dating woes in a karaoke booth, and ends up leaving very little to the imagination.

The latter scene drew the biggest laughs when the movie was screened at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, but Yoshino stages it with surprising sincerity. There’s an earnestness pervading the film, as its protagonist careens from comic encounters to brushes with much darker subject matter.

The not-quite-adulthood of university life is clearly an interest for Yoshino, who also made the more pastel-tinged “Spring Has Come” (2017). Horigai — like the people around her — seems to be figuring out how much she can reasonably expect from life.

The film’s eagerness to share its insights on that topic can get a bit overbearing, and the (admittedly lovely) soundtrack by Hisaki Kato often suggests something more magical than what’s happening onscreen. This is particularly true of the closing stretch, which seems to cycle through multiple endings without quite managing to explain how Horigai reaches her final epiphany.

Perhaps her awakening is more clearly rendered in the film’s source, a novel of the same title by Kikuko Tsumura. Yoshino’s screenplay strips out many of the minor characters, but still succumbs to some of the typical failings of book-to-film adaptations: an over-reliance on voiceovers, literary dialogue and the nagging sense of a story that’s overstretching itself.

Sakuma carries the whole thing even when it isn’t quite working, turning Horigai’s cute eccentricities into a convincing whole. She clearly has a talent for making awkward and imperfect characters relatable, and brings unexpected depth to what could have been a one-dimensional role.

If you’re inclined to forgive its missteps, the film as a whole is doing something similar. It’s a feature-length plea for empathy, and even its messiness has a ring of authenticity to it. Life, too, doesn’t always provide easy answers, whatever your major.

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