Sophie and the Rising Sun
“Sophie and the Rising Sun is a wonderfully intersectional film, featuring interracial love and friendships set to the backdrop of WWII and the languid air of the South.”
Title: Sophie and the Rising Sun (2016)
Director: Maggie Greenwald 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Screenplay by Maggie Greenwald 👩🏼🇺🇸 and book by Augusta Trobaugh 👩🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Watching this film feels like lying in the grass on a summer day—gentle and sweet, nothing too abrasive despite the dark subject matter of anti-Japanese sentiment and internment during WWII. At it’s heart, Sophie and the Rising Sun is a nostalgic romance set to the backdrop of war, made notable by its inclusion of interracial love and friendship. It doesn’t downplay the horrendousness of racism or small-town gossip, but something about the soft cinematography and languid air of the South softens the crimes committed against Grover Ohta (played by Takashi Yamaguchi) into something almost performative, rather than gut-wrenchingly real.
Regardless—or maybe because of its pleasantness—I enjoyed the movie from start to finish. Is it predictable? Yes. Is it a bit trite, stirring up familiar feelings of indignation at overt racism? Sure. But I found the chemistry between Sophie (played by Julianne Nicholson) and Grover convincing, so I let myself simmer in their story for a couple hours and the time flew by.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
This film confidently displays different types of female relationships—some negative, wherein you see spiteful gossipers and self-righteous neighbors hide behind religion as an excuse to go on power trips against other women, others positive. It’s those positive relationships that really shine in Sophie. My favorite moment of the entire film was shared between two friends while the quiet, supportive warmth between Sophie and Anne (played by the ultra-talented Margo Martindale) is palpable in every scene they share.
The selling point of Sophie is its groundbreaking coverage of an interracial relationship between a white Southerner, Sophie, and a Japanese-American from California, Grover.
The film deftly differentiates Japanese, Japanese-American, and Chinese experiences in the United States during WWII—distinctions that few other films set in this era bother to portray. When Grover’s caretaker, Anne, finds out he’s actually Japanese rather than Chinese, she frets over harboring an “evil Jap” in her home as Grover shouts defensively, “I am American!” The sheer desperation Yamaguchi infuses into the word “American,” which he repeats over and over again, is poignant on a personal level. As someone who recognizes a stranger’s expression as they look at you and mentally file you as “foreign,” this scene was especially heartbreaking for me. How many times have I said those same words myself, with the same undercurrent of defensiveness? “I’m American.”
Anne’s reaction, too, is achingly realistic. She brushes him off because it doesn’t matter that he’s American. He was born to Japanese parents, and that’s enough reduce his safety and dignity as a human being into something irrelevant in a post-Pearl Harbor America.
The racial aspects of Sophie moved me, no question. The only reason I’m dinging it from a full score is that its representation is simplistic, asserting that overt racism is bad and we should feel bad for Grover for getting jumped by white men, simply because of his skin color. Sophie lacks the complexity of other media such as recent game-changers Get Out or Queen Sugar, which manage to talk frankly about race while always prioritizing character development over generic platitudes. As endearing as Grover is, and as much as I enjoyed the sweet romance between him and Sophie, he never manages to graduate out of being a one-dimensional “good guy.”
Same goes for the black representation in this film, delivered primarily by Lorraine Toussaint in the role of Salome, Anne’s housekeeper. She has a wonderful, strong role and is pivotal to the plot, but neither does she ever develop beyond being a “good guy” either.
I don’t want to downplay the rarity and importance of an Asian male playing a romantic lead. It’s important, and Sophie tells this story in an engaging, heartfelt way. That being said, the screenplay is just this side of too simplistic for me to score it with full accolades.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.33/5
Sophie and the Rising Sun is a wonderfully intersectional film, which focuses on relationships both romantic and platonic, positive and damaging. It’s sweet and romantic and sad and bittersweet, and I was engaged for every minute of it.