The scent of Southern climbing roses mingles with the ugly acridity of small-town racial prejudice in “Sophie and the Rising Sun,” a safe, gentle-hearted romantic drama that succeeds most winningly as a study of resilient female fellowship. Writer-director Maggie Greenwald’s first adult-oriented feature since 2001’s “Songcatcher” amply exhibits the quiet virtues of feminist empathy and lyricism that have made her voice a much-missed one on the U.S. independent scene, but this WWII-set story of a sensitive woman (Julianne Nicholson) vilified by her community for befriending a non-white outsider nonetheless falls quite far from “Far From Heaven,” hampered by some broad-brush scripting and an unpersuasive dynamic between its onscreen lovers. Flavorful performances — particularly from Margo Martindale and Lorraine Toussaint as the heroine’s uncertain allies — are notable compensation in a film that deserves to connect with older, underserved female viewers.
Augusta Trebaugh’s novel of the same title was published, coincidentally enough, in the same year that “Songcatcher” hit screens; Greenwald reportedly spent the better part of a decade writing and funding her adaptation. If the last 15 years of indie production models have hardly been kind to femme-driven projects of this delicate nature, “Sophie’s” core themes have gained an unintended degree of social urgency in a post-9/11 context: While Trebaugh’s narrative centers on the toxic hostility of American-Japanese relations in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the parallels with America’s still-rampant Islamophobia in the current century are all too recognizable.
Greenwald avoids underlining the point too emphatically, though her screenplay pointedly inscribes the staggered levels of racism that, in 1941, keep the fictitious South Carolina town of Salty Creek in fragile order: “I don’t hold to waitin’ on no yellow foreigner,” a black maid pithily tells her white employer — an instance of bitter irony that might have sprung from the pages of Paul Haggis’s “Crash” screenplay.
The “yellow foreigner” in this case is the distinctively named Grover Ohta (“Letters From Iwo Jima’s” Takashi Yamaguchi, making his English-lingo debut), a handsome, artistically inclined Japanese-American who arrives in Salty Creek with a violent jolt: Extensively bloodied and bruised from a racially motivated beating, he’s literally dumped in the town by a passing bus. Received with bewilderment by the townspeople, who mistake him for a Chinese immigrant, he’s placed in the reluctant care of local Missionary Ladies’ Society head Anne (Martindale), a kindly but no-nonsense widow whose chief joy in life is her florally abundant garden. As Grover recovers, he reveals himself to be both an American citizen and prodigiously green-fingered, bonding closely with Anne and building a tender rapport with her adult niece Sophie (Nicholson) — an unmarried loner yearning for more life than Salty Creek has to offer.
Sophie and Grover’s friendship swiftly becomes the subject of invasive gossip — chiefly stoked by neighborhood busybody and self-appointed moral guardian Ruth (Diane Ladd) — that takes a more vindictive turn in the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor bombings. With many incensed locals out for Japanese blood (though they remain uncertain of “the Chinaman’s” ethnicity), Grover is forced into hiding, while Sophie is made a town pariah. The reserves of hate and reactionary malice that can lie not far beneath the smiling church-and-cookies veneer of American suburbia is hardly unexplored territory on film, and Greenwald doesn’t navigate it with as much discretion or nuance as she does Sophie’s personal blossoming. While played with reliable relish by Ladd, Ruth’s passive-aggressive villainy escalates to cartoon-gorgon levels by the pic’s final act, while the other residents of Salty Creek — apparently a female-steered community in wartime, notwithstanding the presence of a sexually abusive male sheriff — are largely shaped in her image.
More satisfying and dramatically complicated is Anne’s nervous awakening to the ingrained bigotry to which even she has been a sometime subscriber over the years; Martindale beautifully plays the character’s subtle, mostly unspoken re-examination of social allegiance, partnered with exquisite, twice-burnt weariness by the great, eternally underused Toussaint as Anne’s watchful housekeeper Salome — who has her own reasons to look out for Sophie.
The gradual arrival at mutual understanding between these women makes for a richer relationship drama than Sophie’s sensual awakening at Grover’s hands. Given the script’s sketchiest character arc, Yamaguchi remains a somewhat inscrutable figure of moral virtue to the end, while his attraction to Nicholson’s demure, autumnally beautiful Sophie — despite a love scene richly lensed in dusky-gold shadow — never quite achieves an unscripted immediacy. Still, it’s immensely rewarding to see Nicholson given a fully fleshed lead: Such a vital, insufficiently appreciated team player in the ensembles of “Black Mass” and “August: Osage County,” she brings her characteristically creased warmth and on-camera listening skills to a part that could be played for shriller melodrama.
Old-fashioned craft contributions are of a piece with Greenwald’s taste for dignified sentimentality — though Keith Reamer’s editing can feel a little bluntly tied. Like the metaphorically applied blossoms in Anne’s garden, the naturalistic palette of Wolfgang Held’s lensing blushes and wilts in time with the drama on screen. The ornate, rotating string motifs of David Mansfield’s score might strike some viewers as a tad heavy, though as an emotional conduit for characters not always very good at speaking their minds — or hearts — they’re classically effective.