‘Unlock Your Heart’: Queen bee brings the sting of teen drama

We always want what we can’t have. Ai (Anna Yamada), a cool and calculating high school senior, has good grades and navigates the social scene with ease. But when she discovers that her crush, classmate Tatoe (Ryuto Sakuma), is in a secret relationship with another student, something wicked stirs inside her.

She pinches the love letters that Tatoe has been receiving from his sweetheart, Miyuki (Haruka Imou) — a frail and friendless diabetic — and sets out to insinuate herself into both of their lives. But is it unrequited love that’s driving her, or avarice?

Rin Shuto’s “Unlock Your Heart” has the surface trappings of a paint-by-numbers teen drama, but its pink-hued visuals conceal an acid core. That’s due in no small part to the film’s eponymous source novel by Risa Wataya, whose piquant tales of unconventional women have already been adapted to winning effect in Akiko Ohku’s “Tremble All You Want” (2017) and “Hold Me Back” (2020).

Unlock Your Heart (Hiraite)
Run Time121 mins.

“Unlock Your Heart” lacks the quirkiness of those two films, but makes up for it with a pleasingly malevolent streak. Ai begins to resemble a baby-faced Iago as she befriends, and then outright seduces the unsuspecting Miyuki. Tatoe responds to her overtures more warily; when she finally confesses her love, he accuses her of lying — and not just about her feelings for him.

When so many high school movies in Japan are made by middle-aged men, it’s refreshing to watch one that isn’t. Shuto is still in her 20s, and there’s a subtle but noticeable difference in her approach. In this story of destructive desire, she captures the searing power of gaze: Some of the most effective moments are shots of characters just staring at each other.

She also shows a deft touch in a crucial bedroom scene that manages to be blush-inducing without ever feeling exploitative.

The film is alert to the messiness and contradictions of teen romance. Compared to the central love triangle, a casual, friends-with-benefits relationship between two of Ai’s fellow students ends up looking strangely wholesome.

Yamada is riveting as Ai, making her understandable even while she’s seldom likable. In each moment, you can see her mentally weighing up the pros and cons of her next move, though this arch manipulator will eventually discover there are some things in life you can’t control.

Imou, who was so impressive in Bunji Sotoyama’s “Soiree” last year, comes across as more than just a meek pushover. Her naturalistic style is a good fit for the role: Miyuki may seldom take the initiative, but she’s always very present. Sakuma, a graduate of the Johnny’s Jr. idol-pop factory who’s making his big screen debut, barely manages to keep up.

Shuto also wrote and edited the film, which might explain why it feels about 15 minutes too long. And although she avoids the histrionics associated with the genre, there were times when I wished she’d get more carried away. Her willingness to give the actors space can come across as aloofness, and while the story’s conclusion is satisfying, it might have been delivered with a little more flair.

All the same, this is a high school movie with bite, and another memorable performance from Yamada. Even in the film’s slacker moments, she doesn’t let you look away.

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