I sometimes get tired of the arthouse ghetto. It’s not that I wish I was writing about Deck the Halls or Van Wilder II (we actually needed a sequel?!). Indeed, I get down on my knees every day and thank God that I get to skip all that crap. But I do find it frustrating how often people will mention, as my friend Garth did at Thanksgiving, “I noticed you reviewed another movie I hadn’t heard of.” I’m forced to explain sheepishly why that obscure Japanese film might be something in which he’d be interested. Or maybe not. I’m enough of a realist to know that not everyone shares my taste in slow, meditative cinema.

So, this week I’m going to review another obscure Japanese movie. No, I’m being serious. But in this case, the arthouse ghetto really does the movie a disservice, because if you took away the subtitles you’d have a rousing and thoroughly enjoyable teen comedy. What am I saying?! Even with the subtitles, it’s a rousing teen comedy, one that will thrill any teen and young adult adventurous enough to track it down.

Linda, Linda, Linda takes place at a Japanese high school, as the student body is preparing for a big arts festival. In a cool early tracking shot, director and co-screenwriter Nobuhiro Yamashita shows dozens of students working on their projects. The movie, though, focuses on three girls in a crisis. They were planning on performing a song for the fest, but their friend, who played guitar, has hurt her hand and can’t join them. Do they go on without their friend and hurt her feelings in the process? And if they do soldier on, who will be the fourth corner of their quartet? Almost any choice has the potential to upset a whole bunch of people. To complicate matters further, there are boyfriend issues involved.

lindalindalinda2-resized.gifIn a completely random act, the trio decide to invite Son (Bae Doona), a Korean exchange student who can barely walk and talk Japanese at the same time. She’s grateful, though, for the chance to fit in, and her exuberance makes a nice foil to the shyness of the other girls. A mysterious old box of records provides the inspiration for their musical choice, an ‘80s pop punk song entitled “Linda Linda Linda.” Now they just have to learn their instruments.

Yamashita has a great ear for how teenagers interact with each other–from their petty disagreements which get blown all out of proportion to their infatuations which are so easy to indulge but so hard to divulge. Some of the film’s best scenes revolve around the hilariously awkward boys who try to dig up the courage to approach our heroines. At one point, a boy attempts to deliver a note but can’t get his crush away from the other girls, and he doesn’t have the bravery to approach them all at once. Another scene features a comically short phone call that will be familiar to everyone who’s ever tried to talk to someone they desperately wanted to know and yet couldn’t think of a thing to say.

The movie, however, goes beyond puppy love and captures that intensity of being a teenager. As one young woman assertively states to a video camera (and, by extension, any adults who might see it), “When we grow up, we won’t quit being kids.” Teenagers will lap this stuff up, and their parents (who will, of course, sit in a totally different section of the theater) might fondly remember an earlier, more passionate time in their lives.

All of this is anchored by a sparkling performance from Bae Doona, who’s best known to American audiences for her starring roles in Take Care of My Cat and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Here, she exhibits great comic timing as she tries to fit in with both her new friends and the school at large. Secondary characters like a pair of budding filmmakers and a befuddled teacher provide both appropriate background and wonderful comic relief. Those expecting anything much deeper than an engaging story will be disappointed, and the buildup to the big concert doesn’t quite pay off (when will directors learn how to film concert crowds?). But the good will generated in the film’s first 100 minutes more than makes up for it. And though it’s been fifteen months since I saw it at a festival, I still find myself singing the title song’s chorus. “Linda-Linda…Linda-Linda-Linda. Linda-Linda…Linda, Linda, Linda.”

The movie opens this Friday in Chicago and, because it’s at an arthouse theater, only plays for a week. So move quickly.

Linda Linda Linda: three 1/2, out of five