The first 15 minutes of East Side Sushi are utterly transfixing. Juana, a single mother, wakes at 4 a.m. and cooks breakfast for her father. In the dark, she slides her still-sleeping daughter, Lydia, into a school uniform. Juana carries her daughter to the wholesale fruit market and then to an industrial kitchen where, while Lydia sleeps in a folding chair, she and her father slice mango, watermelon, and pineapple to sell on the streets of Oakland. Lydia gets dropped off at school, and then her mother and grandfather go to work, her manning the fruit cart and him stocking shelves at an army/navy surplus store. At the end of the day, Juana is assaulted and robbed at gunpoint of her day's earnings. Her father can't pick her up because his truck has broken down.
Shot in the hazy, glowing light particular to both dawn and dusk, director Anthony Lucero shows us exactly what it means to be poor in America. These first scenes are the best elements of a very good, if uneven, film.
Ostensibly, East Side Sushi is about Juana's journey from a skilled home cook to an assistant cook at a Japanese restaurant where she discovers her love of the cuisine. She wants to become a sushi chef, but because she is the "wrong" race and gender, she meets with resistance.
The cultural resistance Juana encounters comes from all directions, including the Japanese restaurant owner, Mr. Yoshida, and her father. When he asks his daughter why she can't just be a great chef who cooks Mexican food, Juana's reply rings hot and true: "Because I already am." When Juana stands in at the sushi bar one night, a white customer makes his displeasure known to Mr. Yoshida by saying: "I value the authenticity of this place." Everyone is implicated.
As captivating as the film is, it is also disjointed: The dreamy, moving opening soon becomes the fast-paced story of Juana's culinary development, but then culminates in a bizarrely long and detailed (albeit humorous) scene in which Juana competes for $20,000 in an absurd "Champions of Sushi" event that is broadcast live on the internet. The film radiates heart and warmth but is at its best when it's grounded in the details of reality.
When confronting Mr. Yoshida about his prejudice, Juana speaks a restaurant industry truth that there are Latinos in every kitchen, "hidden in the back, prepping your food, and making you all look good." But Juana becomes a force when she tells him, "I don't want to be in the back anymore."