At the beginning of Atsuko Hirayanagi’s feature debut, “Oh Lucy!,” Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is almost lost among fellow commuters, uniformly dressed in gray suits with white surgical masks, who jam a station platform. A stranger from behind whispers “Goodbye!” in her ear and leaps to his death in front of an onrushing train. Mildly shaken, Setsuko arrives at her office (a co-worker asks her, “Did you see it? I’ve never seen one.”) and goes about her routine as usual.
The message is clear, if not original: stray from the herd and you’re dead. What makes Hirayanagi’s iteration of this familiar theme appealing are the quirky characters, the nuanced performances, and the curious cultural topography of Tokyo.
Though the suicide barely stirs a ripple in her routine, a call from her niece Mika (Shioli Katsuna) sets in motion anarchic impulses that threaten uncertain consequences. Mika begs Setsuko to take her place in an English language course that she can no longer afford. Setsuko reluctantly agrees, and sticks to her promise even though the school, in a dicey part of town, looks like a massage parlor.
In the cubbyhole classroom she meets her instructor John (Josh Hartnett, splendid as a sleazy American pretending to be a genuine “American”). He gives her a big hug, an American name (“Lucy”), and a blond wig to facilitate role-playing. Later Setsuko meets Komori (Kôji Yakusho), a.k.a. “Tom,” who wears a Beatles-style wig. They are instructed to hug each other and gamely exchange high fives and such scraps of “American” English as “What’s up, Lucy?”
It’s not subtle, but it’s hilarious.
Clearly Tom hasn’t a clue how to teach English to Japanese students, but the hug — and the wig — have won Setsuko over. Her new identity eventually leads her on a sudden trip to California, where she finds herself both liberated and out of her element.
Hirayanagi also seems lost at times. Outside of Tokyo, her sharp satire can lapse into stereotype — is every American in a menial job a stoner wearing a tee shirt? Luckily, Ayako (Kaho Minami) — Setsuko’s sister and Mika’s mother, goes along for the ride. The siblings hate each other (for good reason, it turns out) and seem to be opposites — Setsuko’s a slob, Ayako is fussily elegant. But in moments of stress, they reveal their deeper kinship with their mannerisms and emotional responses.
Hirayanagi knows her genres, and “Oh Lucy!” resembles movies ranging from Lone Scherfig’s gem “Italian for Beginners” (2000) to the banal “Hello, My Name Is Doris” (2015). She also knows how to unnervingly swerve from effervescent comedy to dark absurdity — any film that opens with a suicide never strays far from the edge.
Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi. Written by Hirayanagi and Boris Frumin. Starring Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Shioli Katsuna, Kôji Yakusho. At Kendall Square. 97 minutes. Unrated (brief nudity, awkward sexual situations, awkward cultural situations). In English and Japanese, with subtitles.Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.