Anthony Lucero's fine film "East Side Sushi" uses the framework of food film to deftly explore class, work, ethnicity and sexism. Lucero's light touch love letter to his native Oakland is a welcome relief from a summer of dinosaurs, international terrorists and super heroes.
Lucero's California roll derives most of its flavor from the writer-director's smart script and fine ensemble acting led by Diana Elizabeth Torres as Juana. A single mother, vending fruit and drinks from the family push cart, Juana supports her young daughter Lydia (Kaya Jade Aguirre) and slowly declining father Apa (Rodrigo Duarte Clark). We follow her deadening routine of rising at 4:00 a.m., preparing Lydia for school, peddling in the streets and getting harassed and ultimately robbed at gun point.
Juana's spirit is not corralled by her circumstances. Needing more income and benefits to keep her small family afloat, she pursues a job at Osaka Restaurant. Despite her cooking ability and eagerness to help learn, like many women and Hispanics, she finds her role limited to clean up and basic backroom preparations. But Juana refuses to know her place. She studies this foreign cuisine, learning the art of sushi.
She brings her work home to mixed reviews. Apa, her father, prefers his familiar burritos and teases her unmercifully about this strange food that she insists on trying out on their traditional Mexican household. Young Lydia has no patience for the meticulous time consuming preparations and ends up sleeping on her supper!
Juana persists. She is eager to join the front ranks preparing sushi with her male counterparts on the restaurant floor in front of customers. When the opportunity to step into the role of front line chef appears, Juana performs well. But the very conservative owner Mr. Yoshida chastises her and denies her the opportunity for promotion. In classic food film form, Roji Oyama provides the dramatic tension embodying male and traditional control. Certainly having a young Hispanic woman, no matter how hard working or accomplished, preparing sushi in front of his customers would render reckless restaurant wreckage.
Angry and frustrated, Juana quits. She abandons her love of food, seeking refuge as a car detailer. But the opportunity to compete in a prestigious statewide sushi chef competition presents itself. Does she have the energy, desire and skill to compete in the male dominated competition?
Whether Juana wins or loses, the film itself is a triumph. Like a seasoned veteran, Lucero mixes his ingredients well. There is no need for spoiler alerts, as he avoids heavy handed Spielberg Dickensian coincidences that attempt to wrap up all loose ends. Realism trumps both cynicism and unbelievability.
The film also showcases the neighborhoods of Oakland, where local restaurants volunteered their kitchens, and local actors and crews made the project a labor of love. As Lucero recounted at the film's Grand Opening at the beautiful Grand Lake theater in Oakland, he had unsuccessfully pursued Rodrigo Duarte Clark for some time . . . only to bump into and recruit him on the neighborhood streets during a shoot for another film. "I avoided those calls," said Rodrigo with a smile. "I thought it might have been the police!" It seems as if Anthony Lucero still has a little more work to do to shake that old image of Oakland.