The summer movie season is now upon us. How can you tell?

By Hollywood's success in turning it into a cultural event in which we have to participate if we don't want to feel left out.

We're constantly being bombarded with attention-grabbing TV commercials and newspaper publicity for each week's upcoming releases. The buzz is overwhelming. At Starbucks, in shopping malls and around the water cooler at work, everyone seems to be talking about the latest from Jennifer Lopez, Ben Affleck or Steven Spielberg. The temptation is to get to the theater so you can jump right in.

But committed Christians should take a step back before going with the flow. Even though this pop-culture carnival is designed primarily to entertain, the values propagated by many of its products can be toxic, and the faithful should pick and choose with care.

There's also another alternative. If you're willing to look beyond the Hollywood hype machine, you can find smaller, lower-budget films from foreign countries that are equally involving but don't depend on celebrity superstars, state-of-the-art special effects or the exploitation of sex and violence to hold your attention. Their distribution is often limited. But it's worth the hunt.

Japanese Gem

The story of Eureka would work for a Hollywood film: Three survivors of a deadly bus hijacking try to put their lives back together. But Japanese writer-director Shinj Aoyama chooses a more contemplative approach, using spare dialogue and intimate moments instead of melodramatic confrontations and clever plotting.

A despairing, alienated man (Go Riju) commandeers a bus in rural Southwestern Japan and kills everyone aboard except for the driver, Sawai (Koji Yakusho), and a young adolescent brother and sister, Naoki (Masaru Miyazaki) and Kozue (Aoi Miyazaki). The rest of the film explores the effects of post-traumatic stress on each of them.

“Am I at fault for having survived?” Sawai guiltily wonders. He disappears for two years. Upon his return he learns that his wife has left him to go to the city. He stays put, getting a job with a local construction company.

The other members of his family and the community around him find his presence unsettling, reminding them of the hijacking tragedy. The police detective (Yukati Matushige) who saved his life during the incident even considers him the prime suspect in a rash of serial murders.

The family of Naoki and Kozue has splintered apart under similar pressures. Their mother has run off, and their father unexpectedly dies. The brother and sister sink into a paralyzing depression, unable to attend school, clean up their house or, at times, even speak.

Sawai moves in with them because no else understands his or their predicaments, and he tries to help them overcome their trauma. They're soon joined by Akihiko (Yochichiroh Saitoh), a college student and cousin of Naoki and Kozue, who's checking them out for the rest of the family and provides some needed comic relief.

Sawai buys an old bus and resumes a variation of his old profession, driving across the country with his three younger companions in search of some kind of psychological rebirth. Although this odyssey has few overtly spiritual components, it dramatizes how serving others can lead to interior redemption. The film-maker skillfully explores the interaction between chance and choice, and good and evil, as each character works out his own destiny.

Iranian Insights

The Iranian cinema has produced several similarly life-affirming films despite censorship from its Islamic regime. The Day I Became a Woman, by female director Marzieh Meshini, examines the role of women through three separate but related stories set on the island of Kish. Each passionately underlines the unfair restrictions on women's freedom at different stages of their lives. But this critique doesn't spring from a Westernized, feminist ideology. Instead it's framed within the context of Iranian culture.

The first vignette centers on Havva (Fatmeh Cheragh Akhtar), a girl who's told on her ninth birthday that she can no longer play with boys. Under Islamic law she's now considered a woman and eligible for marriage. She resists — before finally putting on a black chador for the first time.

The third segment concerns Houra (Aziel Seddighi), an old woman of tribal origin who inherits enough money to buy the modern appliances and furniture she's always yearned for. It humorously presents the conflict between old and new in contemporary Iran.

The middle episode is a minor masterpiece. Ahoo (Shabam Toloui), a young married woman, is participating in a seaside bicycle race with two dozen other female competitors all clad in full-length dark chadors. Her husband rides up on horseback and orders her to stop. When she refuse, he returns with a mullah who warns that her disobedience could lead to divorce and expulsion from the tribe.

Her insistence at remaining in the race brings other angry males on horseback, including clan elders and her own brothers. The striking images and agitated motion of her pedaling brilliantly convey the tension between this desperate young woman and tribal traditions.

Both Eureka and The Day I Became a Woman offer a welcome window into modern societies whose psychology and customs are still markedly different from ours. They may seem slowly paced by Hollywood standards. But each triumphantly celebrates the human spirit in real-life situations without fancy narrative twists — let alone mind-boggling special effects, frenetic action, ear-splitting explosions or any of the other razzle-dazzle devices Hollywood uses to lure us into the local multiplex.

Watch these films and let the folks at the water cooler know what they're missing out on.

Arts & culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.