Given the recent rise in popularity of the mutant-sized sushi burrito and other dubious but satisfying fusion-cuisine hybrids, the time feels improbably right for “East Side Sushi,” a gently winning foodie fable about a Mexican-American chef who dreams of working behind the bar at a Japanese restaurant. Writer-director Anthony Lucero’s delectable debut feature has its share of on-the-nose writing and Cinderella-story contrivances, but for the most part folds its cross-cultural insights into a pleasing underdog narrative as deftly as its heroine presses together rice and nori. Centered around a very appealing performance by newcomer Diana Elizabeth Torres, this low-budget crowdpleaser (coming off a much-laureled run on the regional fest circuit) should satisfy a few appetites in VOD play following a limited theatrical run.
A skilled if underemployed cook living in East Oakland, Calif., Juana Martinez (Torres) rises before 4 a.m. each day to help her fruit-vendor father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark) select fresh wares for his cart, dragging along her sleepy young daughter, Lydia (Kaya Jade Aguirre) in the wee hours before school. Theirs is a hard-scrabble existence that takes a harrowing turn when Juana is robbed at gunpoint while manning the cart, forcing her to find a safer, more lucrative way to support her family. While her cooking experience has been mostly limited to local Mexican taquerias, she impulsively applies for a job preparing food in the kitchen at a nearby sushi restaurant, where she quickly impresses the staff with her expert knifework and strong work ethic. The food is a mystery to her initially, but when she summons the courage to try a piece of raw tuna, it’s love at first bite.
Before long she’s bringing home Japanese leftovers and making different sushi-roll combinations in her own kitchen, where her father and Lydia are mystified — and initially, a bit grossed out — by her enthusiasm for this utterly foreign cuisine. But Juana recognizes that this relatively upscale dining establishment offers a real opportunity to advance in her career and be taken seriously; more to the point, she has a real knack for sushi making. But despite the cautious encouragement of sushi chef Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi), with whom she enjoys a chaste but affectionate bond, Juana’s dreams of becoming a proper sushi chef are promptly dashed by the restaurant’s owner, Mr. Yoshida (Roji Oyama), a staunch traditionalist who doesn’t see a place for a Latina behind the bar — a domain reserved almost exclusively for Japanese men.
Juana’s two-pronged triumph over adversity — she must prevail over sexism and deep-seated racial prejudice — comes about in resolutely unsurprising but thoroughly charming fashion. Her gradual mastery of sushi preparation is covered in sharply edited montages, scored with perhaps a bit too much taiko-drumming gusto by composer Alex Mandel, but also with a flair that complements every mouth-watering closeup. The inevitable “Champions of Sushi” contest that Juana enters feels derivative of any number of high-stakes underdog movies, though the outcome here is treated as refreshingly secondary to the larger victory of earning the respect and appreciation that have long been her due.
Fusion fans and purists alike may well quibble over the plausibility of Juana’s rise to the top, and also over the advisability of making a “green diablo roll” (with a poblano pepper substituting for seaweed). But as smoothly presented here in the film’s well-turned technical package, the beauty of the cuisine and expertise of Juana’s handiwork are evidence enough. At one point, Juana speaks up on behalf of the countless Latino cooks toiling away in kitchens all over the country, unseen and unappreciated, to the benefit of the restaurants that employ them. Yet the most eloquent moments in Torres’ irresistible performance are the smaller, quieter ones — whether she’s kissing her daughter goodbye at school, or slowly realizing her own potential — played with the sort of plain-spoken dignity and decency that make you long for her to find her place at the table.