Saki is a young Japanese-American stay-at-home mother, caring for her daughter Yoshiko while her military spouse is away on duty. Her situation is hard, but it's made more complicated by her daughter's autism, which makes her prone to overstimulation.
Saki struggles alone, acutely aware of how the outside world might be judging her. She leaves apologetic notes and tokens for her neighbors; she doesn't reach out to her parents for help, fearing especially their judgment. But on a particularly tough day, Saki's isolation catches up with her, compromising her ability to care for Yoshiko just when she needs it most.
Directed by Brian Blum from a script by Kent Morita, this short family drama is a sensitively observed, perceptive portrait of a young mother struggling with the unique needs of her child, ones that aren't immediately apparent to the outside world. As a result, she often faces the harsh judgment of her parenting -- and her child -- that she's internalized. Through documentary-like attention to detail, a well of deep empathy and a powerful performance by lead actor Saori Goda, viewers observe the costs of that internalization, as well as the callousness of a society too often quick to rush to judgment.
The foundation of the film lies in the compassion of both its writing and directing, which are driven by the churn and tumble of Saki's emotions, especially as they arise with caring for Yoshiko. The child isn't the focus here, but the hard work of caring that Saki does for her, without support. The storytelling has an eye for how small choices and gestures reflect deeper emotions and attitudes, and as they add up, we see Saki's desire not to be a burden on others and perhaps avoid subjecting Yoshiko to their judgment. Scenes with her parents are especially wrenching, especially when we see Saki hiding or minimizing her struggles or smarting with her own mother's opinions. Whether it's self-imposed or out of avoidance, Saki is isolated, compounding the unique stresses that parents of children with autism can face.
The look and feel of the film have a muted, almost gentle naturalism and a sense of pacing in the editing that lets moments and feelings breathe. But its most powerful element is the central performance by Goda, who plays every moment with honesty and vulnerability. As her struggles pile up, Saki sags more and more under the weight of the stress. And when faced with a crisis with another child and mother at a park, it's understandable that Saki snaps. Only then does she come face to face with the cost of going it alone, for herself and her daughter.
Though she's not the namesake of the film, "My Daughter Yoshiko" achieves emotional depth from its resolute focus on Yoshiko's mother, who has effaced many of her own needs in trying to meet her daughter's needs. In finally owning her needs and perhaps her latent shame in needing help, she learns to fully accept and be compassionate of her situation. Saki achieves an even deeper connection as a parent to her daughter, as her unapologetic protector and advocate -- just as the film achieves a powerful, moving ending, and becomes a portrait of a fiercely loving mother.