Sophie and the Rising Sun is set in South Carolina at the start of WWII just before and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. A Japanese-American man, Grover Ohta (Takashi Yamaguchi) is dumped, beaten and bruised, on a bench at a bus stop.
The townspeople mistake him for Chinese at first. Anne Morrison (Margo Martindale) takes him in and lets him live in a cottage behind her house. It was supposed to be until he healed, but she was a serious gardener and he was an even more expert gardener. He stayed around and cared for Anne’s garden.
Sophie Willis (Julianne Nicholson) was a single woman – her first love died in the first war. She’s a painter. She goes out in a rowboat every morning and catches crabs to sell.
As a character, Sophie is completely in command of her own thoughts and always has been. She’s quiet and self-contained, but bold. Bold and determined. At first Sophie seemed like a shy spinster with her watercolors and her sunbonnet. But when she makes a move there’s no mistaking what she wants. Nor is she afraid to follow her own heart.
Sophie and Grover paint together on Sunday mornings. They fall in love early in the film but don’t become lovers until after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. By then the townspeople figure out that Grover is Japanese and he is beaten up again. He has to hide.
Sophie at first thinks he’s fled town. That’s what Anne tells her. It breaks Sophie’s heart. But Anne hid Grover in her father’s old fishing shack. When Sophie learns he’s still around she immediately goes to him.
Ruth Jeffers (Diane Ladd) is the town busybody. She’s a God-loving, bigoted, racist Southern woman of the 1940’s. As such, she is a real problem for Sophie, Grover, and Anne.
Ruth is also a problem for the other important character in the story, Salome Whitmore (Lorraine Toussaint). Salome enters the story as Anne’s maid. At first I couldn’t understand why Lorraine Toussaint agreed to take a part like this. She wandered around the edges of the story and said, “Yes, ma’am.” Soon though, she became important, to meddlesome Ruth and especially to Sophie.
I think my favorite scene in the film was between Salome and Sophie. They stood on a wooden dock with the water behind them. The evocative acting between them was done only with the eyes. It was beautiful to watch as they connected.
The five characters I’ve described make up the important drivers of the story. The plot is intricate, full of small town secrets, interesting surprises and twists. When I watched the trailer for Sophie and the Rising Sun some time ago, I thought it would be a simple love story. But it was full of suspense and danger. The theme of love was not just about romantic love but the love of friends as well. The racism of the situation was blatant and often violent, as racism and fear of the other continues to be to this day.
Maggie Greenwald directed and wrote the screenplay, based on a novel by Augusta Trobaugh. I’ve put the book on reserve at my local library so I can read it. I hope it’s as suspenseful and exciting as the movie.
After a run in theaters, Sophie and the Rising Sun is now available on Netflix US.