Cottontail (2024)

Lily Franky, right, stars in the family drama “Cottontail” with Ryo Nishikido and Rin Takanashi.

‘Cottontail’ goes only as far as Franky can take it

Can a mother’s adoration for Peter Rabbit impel an estranged father and son to go hopping down the bunny trail, hand in hand? Within the realm of the stilted family drama, “Cottontail,” the answer is a hippity-hoppity, yes! Whether or not you hop on board such a simplistic vehicle is open to debate.

Working in Patrick Dickinson’s favor in his feature writing-directing debut is the brilliant casting of “Shoplifters” standout Lily Franky as a grieving husband entrusted with fulfilling his wife’s dying wish to have her ashes scattered in England’s historic Lake Windermere. It’s a journey from Tokyo to London that his insular Kenzaburo prefers to make alone as if his beloved Akiko (Tae Kimura) mattered only to him.

Their adult son, Toshi (Ryo Nishikido), begs to differ. He and his wife, Satsuki (Rin Takanashi), and their young daughter insist on tagging along, setting up an untenable situation where father and son clash early and often. It doesn’t help that Toshi treats Pops like a child, or that Kenzaburo opts to drown his sorrows in alcohol.

What’s frustrating is that Dickinson’s writing offers nothing unique. It’s the age-old father-son friction, and Dickinson unwaveringly adheres to a predictable pattern of dissension ultimately leading to acceptance and understanding.

It’s not impossible to freshen the standard if you make the transformation compelling. Dickinson succeeds in part. Where he fails is in conveying a deep enough understanding of Toshi, who disappears from the narrative for a significant stretch after the family arrives in London with Akiko’s ashes stuffed inside a decorative tea canister. When no one is looking, Kenzaburo sneaks away with the tin, determined to keep his farewell to his beloved intimate and sacrosanct. But, metaphor alert, he gets lost, improbably ending up in the good graces of a farmer and his daughter played respectively by Ciaran Hinds and – in a clever bit of casting – his real-life offspring, Aoife Hinds.

At first, the diversion seemed so preposterous that I couldn’t keep from rolling my eyes. But damned if these scenes didn’t emerge as the most affecting moments in the movie as Kenzaburo discovers a kindred spirit in Hinds’ also recently widowed John. Adding to the poignancy is the fact that Kenzaburo speaks very little English and John knows even less Japanese. But no words are necessary to communicate their shared sense of loss.

These scenes are genuine and truthful in a way the rest of the film is not. When not surrendering to father-son cliches, Dickinson indulges in sentimentalism, particularly during flashbacks to the younger versions of Kenzaburo (Kosei Kudo) and Akiko (Yuri Tsunematsu) bonding over Akiko’s reverence for Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” a love signalized by the bunny pendant around her neck. Aww!

Dickinson further demonstrates an overreliance on flashbacks in his depiction of Kenzaburo’s lifelong coldness toward Toshi and Akiko’s progressive descent into dementia. No doubt Dickinson sparks an emotional reaction with these harrowing visions, but there’s a mechanical feel to them that diminishes their impact.

Franky can only do so much, and he does a lot, to save the story from collapsing. In the end, I guess I’m not entirely sure of the point. Never a good thing. If it’s merely an account of an eventual father-son reconciliation, the payoff is woefully weak. And if it’s intended to illustrate that feelings of loss and remorse are universal, it’s vastly restrained. But again, there’s Franky, who saves this exercise in manipulation too often to count. If you must see it, see it for him. He’s a gem.

Movie review


Rated: Not rated

Cast: Lily Franky, Ryo Nishikido, Tae Kimura, Ciaran Hinds, Aoife Hinds and Yuri Tsunematsu

Director: Patrick Dickinson

Writer: Patrick Dickinson

Runtime: 94 minutes

Where: In theaters before streaming on July 9

Grade: B-

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