The culinary quest for perfection, as we see in Burnt, is the enemy of good mental health and sound social behavior. Bradley Cooper’s hot-shot London chef struggles for redemption, overcoming all the usual obstacles and addictions before finding inner peace (and a third Michelin star). It’s entirely formulaic, as is the aspirational kitchen melodrama East Side Sushi, which works in the opposite direction. Oakland single mother Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) tries to raise herself up from the working poor, trading her mastery of Mexican comfort food for the prep counter in the back of a strict, traditionalist sushi bar. Up front, mingling with the customers and reaping big tips, are the star sushi chefs—led by friendly Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi). Need I even bother pretending we don’t know where Juana will end up in this movie?
EAST SIDE SUSHI Opens Fri., Nov. 13 at Sundance (where director Anthony Lucero will appear Friday) and Ark Lodge (where he’ll appear Saturday). Not rated. 107 minutes.
So while it’s entirely predictable, full of follow-your-dreams sentiment, Anthony Lucero’s sincere little indie does provide an exemplary heroine. Juana is a steadfast class jumper who refused to be pigeonholed as just another Latina. She’s a striver—aided by her kindly widowed father, immigration status never mentioned—who sends her daughter to parochial school. And she’s battling the sexism of her new trade, delivering one angry speech about all American restaurants keeping “Latinos in the back, in the kitchen, hidden. I don’t want to be in the back anymore.”
This is an excellent point in an otherwise mundane movie. The two stars have chemistry, though no romance (unlike Burnt, which brandishes Sienna Miller). The knife-work and kitchen texture here appear authentic, yet no one loses a fingertip or starts a stove fire. Even a cutesy confection like Jon Favreau’s Chef conveyed the chaos, egotism, and panic that underlies every great meal; and Burnt better shows the personal cost of such culinary obsession. (Why’s Aki so nice to Juana? What’s his story? We have no idea.)
East Side Sushi respects restaurant protocols, even while lapsing into sunny montages of Oakland’s multicultural mosaic. Yes, this may be a wonderful and diverse place to live, but it’s screen time that would’ve been better spent on the specifics of kitchen and character. The film actually improves at the end, with Juana on a crass reality TV show, where the most garish and commercial sushi creation naturally wins. East Side Sushi has much more integrity, if not so finely sliced.
Brian Miller is Arts Editor for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-467-4372.