Opening Friday, March 23

Most movies operate by generating primal feelings: fear, joy, anxiety, amusement. Elicit these in various proportions and your movie will fit into a broad genre, whether it’s horror, comedy, or drama. That’s the usual routine. But some films look past primal feelings to focus on more complicated emotions. They paint with different colors, you might say, mixing and swirling the hues to elicit complex, uncomfortable feelings.

Oh Lucy!, a Japanese-American production from first-time feature filmmaker Atsuko Hirayanagi, is the latter type. It’s funny and disturbing, comic and tragic, weird and wonderful. It generates feelings that we don’t even have names for.

The film follows Tokyo office worker Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), a middle-aged woman in the grips of profound ennui. The workplace scenes are funny and familiar, like a Japanese version of The Office. But darkness lingers just beneath the surface. Hirayanagi holds scenes a beat longer than usual, suggesting the cruelty behind the laughter. When we see Setsuko’s tiny Tokyo apartment, it looks like the utility closet of Japan’s saddest thrift shop.

Setsuko’s world is abruptly overturned when she meets expat John (Josh Hartnett), an English-language instructor who employs an unusual pedagogical technique. John encourages his students to assume new personas, complete with ridiculous wigs, and speak with big American confidence. Setsuko, who adopts the name Lucy, discovers that she rather likes the options afforded by her new identity. More funny bits ensue, including a running goof on that mystifying American ritual of the hello hug. When Lucy follows John to southern California, her world flips again.

On one level, Oh Lucy! is a dark comedy about identity, the roles we choose to play, and the radical escape fantasies we all entertain from time to time. On another, it’s about despair and the sort of bitter laughter that bubbles up when things aren’t funny at all.

I like that the movie takes the time to let a moment land, allowing the full complexity of an exchange to resonate. Terajima’s lead performance, nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, is utterly arresting. And I don’t think I’ve seen anyone who looks cooler smoking a cigarette since Robert De Niro circa 1979. I don’t know why, but that seems relevant to a film that doesn’t feel like anything you’ll find at the multiplex. Find it at the Chelsea in Chapel Hill.