For most people, the teen years come with a myriad of confusing emotions, drastic life changes, and embarrassing incidents. For Akira and Maki, the young protagonists of Yoichi Narita’s Follow The Light, those formative years also bring a number of upsetting changes to their small farming community, including a UFO and crop circle. These bizarre occurrences not only set them on intersecting paths, but symbolically carry the weight of their strange and explosive teenage emotions. Follow the Light, an official selection at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, is a wistful romance that ponders the many conflicts and emotions of adolescence.
Akira (Tsubasa Nakagawa) and his father (Taro Suruga) have just moved to town from Tokyo. Akira misses his old life in the city and is more comfortable daydreaming and sketching than socializing with his classmates, who are busy making preparations for their school’s closing ceremony. Eventually, his drawing skills pique the interest of his peers, and he begins to make friends. Maki (Itsuki Nagasawa), on the other hand, has completely isolated herself from her classmates, refusing to attend school in the midst of her family’s financial struggles. The gossipy kids at school tell Akira that he should stay away from Maki, but he inevitably befriends her after they both follow a mysterious green light in the sky that leads them to a crop circle.
Follow the Light is a theme-driven film. It’s filled to the brim with every kind of theme and conflict it could possibly fit into 104 minutes, including friendship, young love, depression, identity, divorce, financial struggles, and change. While Akira and Maki get the most screen time, there are a handful of side characters who each introduce a meaningful conflict into the story. There’s Akira and Maki’s teacher (Rina Ikoma), who longs to leave town for a job in the city, and there’s Maki’s uncle, Hideo (Toshiro Yanagiba), a farmer who struggles to keep up with changing ecological conditions and economic demands. In the midst of all these conflicts and individual stories, the teenage and adult characters are joined together by a few common threads. In their own way, they’re each looking for a place to belong, and they each fear losing their identities as their familiar community changes before their eyes. Although there’s a lot going on in Follow the Light, these commonalities keep the story balanced and make it easy to follow. The numerous characters and themes also put Akira and Maki’s conflicts into perspective, revealing their strengths and flaws as they try to fit in with other students and adults who have their own problems.
Some teen movies try to introduce a bunch of characters and conflicts quickly by using overbearing, spoon-fed dialogue that can make teen protagonists look dramatic and pretentious. However, Follow the Light avoids that problem by developing its characters and themes through strong performances and incredibly detailed cinematography rather than through painfully direct dialogue. The teenaged cast members are particularly impressive, and they each develop a strong and entertaining character that speaks to our own sense of loneliness and our longing for identity. Itsuki Nagasawa portrays Maki with grace and respect, acting out her rollercoaster of emotions without overdoing it. Tsubasa Nakagawa gives an equally strong performance, successfully carrying all of Akira’s pent-up depression in his facial expressions. These memorable performances take Follow the Light to the next level, adding multiple dimensions to the story’s characters.
The performances are supplemented by strong cinematography and visuals that keep our eyes glued to the screen throughout. Within the first few minutes of the film, Narita establishes three distinguishable spaces, each one the perfect stage for the themes of the story to develop. There’s the school with its overbearing white and grey palette, the light and colorful space of the rice fields, and the dark, cramped (but still cozy) space inside Akira’s home. The cinematography draws us in with sensory details, from Akira’s pencil scratching across rough sketch paper to delicious dishes prepared by Maki’s uncle that sizzle and pop with heat. The soundtrack also helps to tell the story, starting with a hollow silence that is eventually broken by a simple piano melody when Akira makes his first friend at school. Every technical aspect of Follow the Light works together to support the conflicts and characters, creating a cohesive and engaging story.
It’s difficult to capture the explosive emotions of the teen years without oversimplifying those emotions or relying on overused tropes from the coming-of-age genre, but Follow the Light pulls it off rather well. Strangely enough, it’s the adult characters in the story that aren’t as well developed. Perhaps it’s because the kids get more screen time, but the adult characters are more one-dimensional, frequently ruining the mood in heartfelt moments with obvious and insincere dialogue. The adult characters make parts of Follow the Light feel more like a movie for kids rather than a movie with universal themes that happens to be about kids.
Follow the Light has several loose threads to tie up in the end, and it has trouble finding a good stopping point. The numerous characters and conflicts at play make the film feel a little longer than it is, and the ending, especially, seems a tad bit unsteady. As a whole, however, it is emotionally full and well-rounded, taking us on a pleasant journey with perfectly timed highs and lows. With only a few minor pacing and dialogue hiccups, Follow the Light successfully explores a broad scope of emotions and celebrates adolescence without once belittling its teen protagonists.
Screening during the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.