The best cooking movies pay attention to detail. Like a well-trained chef, a director making a film about food prep knows how important it is to capture the proper way to julienne a vegetable, or the careful plating of an entree, just before it’s whisked off to a diner’s table.
Anthony Lucero, writer and director of the charming and wonderfully meticulous “East Side Sushi,” is aware of all this and uses that awareness to great effect in his feature debut. In his depiction of Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) — a Mexican American single mother who finds renewed purpose by attempting to become a sushi chef — Lucero treats the frame of the camera like the sides of a bento box, holding on tight close-ups of California rolls and tuna nigiri. Those beautifully crafted images — along with the sight of Juana’s furrowed brow as she unfurls her bamboo mat in yet another attempt to sculpt the perfect Japanese delicacy — serves as a reminder that making sushi is as much art as culinary pursuit.
It also makes you really, really hungry for avocado rolls.
We first meet Juana as a harried mom in Oakland, Calif., waking every day before 4 a.m. so she can help her father stock his fruit cart, then rushing her daughter to school before she hurries to another job: scrubbing exercise equipment and toilets at a local gym. After she’s robbed at gunpoint while working at her dad’s cart, Juana spots a help-wanted sign in the window of a neighborhood sushi restaurant. She looks inside, where — in the perfectly cylindrical pieces of sushi and neatly stacked sake boxes — she senses an order that might replace the chaos of her life. She applies to work in the kitchen, but the wife of the owner (Miyoko Sakatani) tells her that women aren’t usually hired for the job because it involves lifting 50-pound bags of rice.
“My daughter is 52 pounds, and I can carry her for hours,” Juana says. “If I can’t do it, you can fire me on the spot. I won’t be offended.”
Torres — who could pass for Salma Hayek’s younger sister — plays Juana with such quiet determination that, once she starts working, it’s no surprise that she starts taking notes from Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi), a sushi chef who becomes her mentor. It’s also not surprising that her father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark) objects to her career choice. “That doesn’t sound Mexican to me,” he says, when she tells him she’s taken a job at a place called Osaka.
“East Side Sushi” includes a number of moments that are a little too on-the-nose in their eagerness to convey the obstacles — both cultural and gender-based — that Juana faces. A treacly piano score also overpowers a couple of scenes, particularly a disagreement between Juana and Aki that would have played far more effectively if the music were turned down a notch.
But Lucero compensates for such missteps with subtly persuasive visual choices and narrative restraint. Images of Juana expertly slicing raw tuna, for example, call to mind the way she grills equally lean pieces of carne asada earlier in the film, highlighting the connection between the heat of jalapeño and wasabi. And when Juana finally confronts her boss and demands to be considered for an open position as sushi chef, it’s a moment of catharsis that is both powerful and earned — not only for her character, but for an entire population.
“Behind every great restaurant here, there are great Latinos, in the back, in the kitchen, hidden, prepping the food and making you all look good,” she says, swallowing back tears. “Well, I don’t want to be in the back anymore.”
With that speech, it becomes obvious why Juana dreams of sushi. Sushi chefs are known for their supreme control over the cutting board. That’s exactly the kind of power that Juana — and other hard workers like her — want and deserve.
Chaney is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains brief moments of mild violence. 107 minutes.