First-time helmer Eriko Kitagawa allows no external complications to disturb the simplicity of her adolescent love story, “Halfway.” Her high school sweethearts don’t even have backstories: no parents, no social context. A single dilemma determines the hormonally imbalanced ups and downs of their platonic relationship: Will the boy venture off to a prestigious college in Tokyo or stay closer to home? Pitch-perfect tonal control and two magnificently naturalistic teen perfs make for a bittersweet and effortlessly sustained vignette. Theatrical prospects seem iffy, but “Halfway” could go far on the fest circuit.
Hiro (Kie Kitano) is recovering in the school infirmary after a near-swoon occasioned by proximity to her secret crush — tall, popular basketball player Shu (Masaki Okada). While recuperating, she rehearses declaring her love for him, dramatically assuming both parts of the “conversation.” Unbeknownst to Hiro, Shu overhears her avowal of affection, but instead of mocking her, he catches her on her bike ride home to ask for a date. Hiro feigns nonchalance, but her unspoken elation is so extreme she pedals wildly right off the road.
But close on the heels of euphoria comes rage. Furious with Shu for starting a romance when he means to leave home, Hiro demands he forsake his brilliant academic future. Even when he acquiesces, she remains jealous of the time he devotes to his studies, petulantly flouncing around and disturbing his concentration with all the empathy of a cranky 2-year-old.
Lanky Okada’s calm, patient sweetness neatly counterpoints pint-size Kitano’s volatility and emotional absolutes. Much of the dialogue is improvised, but the adolescent thesps embody their characters so thoroughly, plunging so wholeheartedly into every moment, that no strain or dead time is felt.
Successful TV scribe Kitagawa reportedly inherited the project from Shunji Iwai (“All About Lily Chou-Chou”), who remained onboard as producer and co-editor. Though the subject matter hews closely to Iwai’s films thematically, the austerity of the storyline and relaxed, fluid HD style sharply diverge from Iwai’s more aesthetically controlled, conceptualized dreamscapes. Not that Kitagawa’s film disavows dreaminess, but the mood springs more from rhythmic repetition of the couple’s rituals, as they desultorily lounge by the river and ride their bicycles through the countryside.
Tech credits are aces, Shinichi Tsunoda’s lyrical lensing and Takeshi Kobayashi’s effective piano-led score contributing to the self-enclosure of Okada and Hiro’s universe. Pic tilts youthful even in its secondary roles, the sole grownups being teachers thesped by Japanese heartthrobs Takao Osawa and Hiroki Narimiya.