Coming-of-age romance stories come in all flavors, and one of the more common types of these stories is that of the summer romance. After all, it’s the time where the young can make mistakes and find themselves, as the warmth of the season brings joy and color. Whether it’s fun times at the mall with friends or finding love by chance, this is the time of freedom and growth. Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop is all about utilizing this period of life to overcome all challenges and express yourself.
The movie centers around a colorful mall during the summer, where teenagers thrive in the prime of their youth to make memories that will stick with them forever. That’s where we find our two main characters before their incidental meeting.
Our main boy Cherry is quiet, gloomy, and awkward. Constantly stuck in his own head, he has trouble expressing himself out loud. He also constantly wears headphones, which don’t play music but instead serve as a way to avoid interacting with people and also drowning out sounds. Instead of speaking his mind, he’s most comfortable writing haiku.
Meanwhile our main girl, Smile, is almost the exact opposite. She’s incredibly bright, bubbly, and cheerful. Yet while she has no problem expressing herself, she can be shy when it comes to her buck teeth. They were considered cute during her childhood but one day she suddenly became self-conscious of her image. Despite being a popular streamer who always tells her fans to smile, she can’t be seen in public without her mask.
As fate would have it, the two meet when chaos in the mall catches them in the crossfire and they end up accidentally swapping phones. After that, they start noticing each other at the mall more and eventually build a connection. This develops further as they help an elderly man search for an old custom vinyl of his dead wife so he can listen to her voice again. In the pursuit of this past love story, a new one is born.
The plot is pretty standard teenage romance stuff: happy girl and awkward guy fall in love, their feelings build up, then they’re separated briefly before finally the triumphant return and confession. But Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop makes up for being formulaic by presenting deeply rooted messages, a genuinely cheerful atmosphere, colorful art style, and interesting supporting characters.
As a quiet teen obsessed with haiku, Cherry’s character sounds like he’d have a sense of forced profoundness, when he’s really just a socially challenged kid. Yet here, what’s more interesting than the content of the haiku are what the poems themselves represent. Haiku are meant to emphasize simplicity and directness of expression, since you only have a short and precise amount of syllables to convey your message. But here they’re the feelings Cherry is incapable of understanding and speaking. When Smile calls his voice cute, he can’t even process what that means until he puts it into a haiku. So it’s interesting how he uses haiku to indirectly convey his complex emotions, not for everyone else but just so he can understand himself.
The words come to him suddenly through his experiences, and he carefully chooses those which connect his emotions together. He then posts them to Twitter, where no one but his mom reads them, but his delinquent friend likes to graffiti them around the city. And as a result, Cherry lives this weird life where he can’t express himself to the people around him even though he’s literally surrounded by his thoughts.
This contrasts with Smile who’s fully capable of expressing herself, but struggles with self-acceptance. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t do much to expand her side of the story with this. Her arc consists mostly of her growing relationship with Cherry. Falling in love with him, finding out he’s leaving, crying over a broken record which clearly symbolizes the relationship, and then the big confession which leads her to finally take off her mask. The message there kind of implies that you can’t accept yourself unless someone else accepts you, but the movie was probably trying to go for a “happily ever after” ending no matter what. In case you couldn’t tell, I thought it was weak and rushed.
Every side character, as underdeveloped as they are, seem to have had an immense amount of creativity packed into them. You’ve got Beaver, a latino delinquent who loves to cause mischief but overall he’s a cool dude to hang with. An otaku literally named Japan who’s obsessed with an anime waifu. Smile’s two sisters, one of which is the strong elderly sister while the other is more tech savvy. Then you have Toughboy, who… well you can kind of tell who he is by his name. Of course you have Fujiyama, the deaf old man who runs a vinyl shop but is starting to lose his memory and wants to remember his wife one last time. And there’s even more characters briefly shown but barely interacted with, like the mall security guys, Fujiyama’s daughter, Smile’s parents, or the other workers at the elderly center. All of which you can tell are interesting characters that you want to learn more about, but the movie never delves into them.
And it’s unfortunate these supporting characters don’t play much more of a role within this romance story. In fact, you get the impression they initially weren’t intended for this story but instead were repurposed for this. The opening scene left the idea in my head of a movie with all these characters but in a story more focused on a hectic day at the mall which culminates into developments and pay-offs for all these characters. Something that I would definitely love to see, but in a way I understand why they were used the way they are, and overall I guess I don’t mind, because at least the movie does really well with establishing these characters naturally. They feel like extensions of everyday life at this mall, and that brings a kind of comfort because of how they all interact with each other. In a way, they all kind of make me feel nostalgic for a summer mall I’ve never visited before. And that’s kind of really cool that it can do that.
That all being said, Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop still shines when it comes to its pure aesthetic. The portrayal of a summer mall full of energy, with a wide variety of unique characters, gives this movie life. And the soundtrack mixes old and new styles together to create a range of moods. The music brings images of calming summer days, exciting adventures, and bitter sweet confessions, all of which span across time.
In the end, much like how words come to you when they feel just right, so too can love and the courage to express yourself. Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop is a colorful movie with a cast of likeable characters that carry its formulaic story and rushed ending. While the story itself isn’t memorable, the feelings it brings definitely are. If you’re looking for a feel-good romance that doubles as teen summer nostalgia, then this might be the experience for you.
Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop is available now on Netflix.
Studio: Signal.MD, Sublimation
Release Date: July 22, 2021
Director: Kyouhei Ishiguro
Screenplay: Kyouhei Ishiguro & Dai Satou
Music: Kensuke Ushio
Character Design: Yukiko Aikei