Charlotte Sometimes is a challenging and, perhaps, difficult film. Writer-director Eric Byler's story is, by design, elliptical, foregoing traditional, user-friendly exposition for a greater realism (after all, real people don't often tell each other things they already know). Byler uses symbolism, but minimalizes it rather than making a show of it. Unlike the melodramatic character "arcs" of traditional dramas, the characters in Charlotte Sometimes seem not to evolve much, though the scenario does force perceptual shifts on them. In short, Charlotte Sometimes is subtle, which may be cultural suicide for an American film.
The film revolves around Michael (Michael Idemoto), a taciturn mechanic increasingly strained by pent-up passions. Michael pines for Lori (Eugenia Yuan), the tenant on the other side of the duplex he maintains. Every night, Lori indulges in noisy sex with her brawny but unsophisticated boyfriend Justin (Matt Westmore), then retreats to Michael's apartment for companionship. Retreating from the sexual noise pollution one night, Michael meets a mysterious woman named Darcy (Jacqueline Kim) at the local bar. The ensuing complications and revelations amongst this quartet of lovers, users, and losers make up this contained, short-story-like exercise.
The elements slide quietly and effectively into place here: Byler's sly, minefield of a script, his editing (with Kenn Kashima), shadowy but surprisingly film-like digital photography by Robert Humphreys, and full-bodied--if sometimes remote--performances by the cast. The film has a hint of the romance novel or even the softcore cable movie in its aesthetic, though its ambitions are clearly much deeper. The sexual episodes, though erotic, are appropriately witholding, and the rest of the tale is far too dour and unsettling to merely prop up the sex: at one point, a character admits feeling a wave of loneliness and disgust with every coital experience.
That the characters are all Asian American is partly beside the point, though Byler does infer commentary on Asian American gender politics. Byler toys with the hyper-sexualized female iconography which contrasts to the desexualized Asian male archetype; both images depress the sexes and arrest healthy sexual development. Brushing against this notion, Byler sets one scene between Michael and Lori in a hollowed-out car. She: "Can we go for a ride?" He: "No." She: "Why not?" He: "There's no engine." Universally, Michael represents the sexual hermit clinging to his lonely discomfort and the restraint of intellect because of their relative safety.
The frustrations of the characters may be felt by the audience. Though Byler injects acidic humor, his Pinter pauses and formalistic dialogue become wearing. Little in the way of release is forthcoming; Michael's catharsis is all whimper and no bang, and Darcy's is all bang and no whimper, so to speak. Still, these frustrations are honest and instructive expressions of people's inaccessible romantic unhappiness. Emotion and action are disconnected and counterproductive in the world of Charlotte Sometimes, an object, negative-example lesson about love and sex.