The adolescent girl at the heart of Hiromasa Yonebayashi's haunting When Marnie Was There has the cropped dark hair, wide eyes and square-peg awkwardness that will be familiar to fans of Studio Ghibli animated movies. Unlike the feisty, willful sprites of Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away and many other Ghibli treasures though, Anna is a cowed, sensitive soul with artistic leanings. At school she's friendless and bullied. At home, where she lives with adults she calls Auntie and Uncle, she's a mouse so anxious and fearful of rocking the boat that her worried guardians decide to send her to the country for the summer.
For reasons we'll learn about later, Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) believes she's being dumped on the cheerfully phlegmatic couple with whom she's billeted. Trust soon grows as they allow her to roam free with her sketchbook in a Ghibli landscape tailor-made for adventure, danger and self-discovery. Even without its moving parable of emotional repair, When Marnie Was There has all of Ghibli's exquisitely hand-drawn sense of place — a wild green marshland inspired by the quake-prone Japanese island of Hokkaido, complete with waving wildflowers, erratic weather, and not a tweety-bird or cute bunny in sight to cue gooey emotions.
On one of her solitary outings, Anna happens upon a Gothic mansion that looks strangely familiar. Perhaps in deference to the 1976 British novel by Joan G. Robinson on which the film is based, the cavernous home contains a blond, blue-eyed little rich girl named Marnie (voiced by Kiernan Shipka). Marnie has been on the lookout for a best friend to rescue her from her own sadness. The two lonely girls become soul-mates, yet Marnie keeps vanishing and re-appearing without explanation. A third girl, appealingly owlish and dependable, materializes to further complicate the question of what actually exists outside the terrifying world of Anna's traumatized imagination. Amid tumultuous internal and climatic storms, Anna is freed at last to process long-suppressed memories of how she came to be a foster child.
More than one kind of orphan emerges from the movie's intricately-layered plotting. Expect no wicked stepmothers or redemptive dwarves, though. With a few exceptions the adults are benign, though some have their own tragic losses to contend with. As for Anna, she has the wrong end of the stick about who she is and where she comes from. Like every Ghibli girl, she must work her way through her fears and anxieties in her own, wonderfully old-fangled way.