A blind jiu-jitsu student finds himself involved in his instructor’s secret life in freshman helmer Kitao Sakurai’s progressively muddled neo-noir, “Aardvark.” Notwithstanding an impressively confident first scene, the film plays like many other unfocused indies, stretching for originality while struggling to integrate worthy influences. What might have worked as a short gets tripped up by an identity crisis, likely relegating “Aardvark” to minor sidebars in smallscale U.S. fests and streaming websites for industry players and film geeks.
Sakurai’s story was inspired by the two real-life protags, non-professional actors who basically play themselves at the start and then become folded into a fictional tale set in Cleveland’s underbelly. The attractive opening shot comprises a fixed camera in a forest, with a fallen, almost horizontal trunk occupying the length of the widescreen frame. A man approaches from afar, and only when he nears the foreground is it clear he’s blind. This is Larry (Larry L. Lewis), an AA stalwart who wanders into a Brazilian jiu-jitsu school run by Darren (Darren Branch) and signs up for lessons.
Larry turns into a prize pupil, and he and Darren develop a bond that stops just short of entry into the instructor’s hidden, dangerous world. The script keeps the details murky, only conveying that Darren takes orders from Darius (Sakurai himself) and apparently burglarizes homes. Darren seems to want out, until one day, Larry stumbles on his friend’s dead body and decides to seek revenge.
As long as Sakurai keeps the focus on the burgeoning friendship of the two men — that is, the real-life origins of the pic — he reaps something genuine, building a sense of Larry’s confidence while introducing the semi-intriguing mystery of why concepts of physical self-defense consume much of Darren’s life. The arrival of Darren’s pole-dancer friend Candy (Jessica Elizabeth Cole) feels uncertain, but when an outrageously exaggerated Southern cop (Dutch Crouse) is inexplicably introduced, the film switches gears and becomes an unsatisfying vengeance noir with some truly bad scenes tacked on, including a laughably semi-lurid sequence in a gay bar. Sakurai may be tipping his hat to Fassbinder, but it plays like a poor, and pointless, parody.
Branch, who’s also appeared in Sakurai’s shorts, transmits screen personality far more strongly than his co-stars; Cole hints at having more to offer than she’s granted by the script. A flashback generated by Larry’s interrogation by the risible detective might have origins in classic noir, but its use here feels hamfisted. Widescreen is intermittently utilized, though the lensing is most problematic in interiors, dulled by the digital format so it appears to have been shot through a scrim. Music can be overly insistent.