Sometimes, an indie film’s pedigree is far more interesting than the movie itself, and so it is with “Alina,” an inconsequential Russian immigrant lured into “personal escort” work by the support system she leans on upon arriving in New York.
It was written and directed by Ben Barenholtz, a seminal figure in the indie cinema who branched out from running a New York art house theater to producing films such as “Miller’s Crossing,” “Requiem for a Dream” and “Georgia” for filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers, Darren Aronofsky and Ulu Grosbard.
He hit 80 before he decided “What I really want to do is direct,” and “Alina” is very much an old man’s movie — “edgy” in a 1970s way, with archetypal characters summoned up as distant, dated memories. Ethnic stereotypes give way to lurid slices of the night club sex trade, letting the picture veer into dirty old man’s movie territory.
The title character, played as an open book by Darya Ekamasova of TV’s “The Americans,” tells her mother she’s leaving for a trip to Cuba. Mom doesn’t know Alina’s plan is the leave the ashes of socialism behind altogether and make her way to New York.
She is to meet an old friend in the city, but first, she stops in a friendly looking eatery — The Russian Samovar. That’s where Maria (Olga N. Bogdanova) is the first countrywoman to offer her greetings — “Welcome to this crazy city!” — advice — “Come, we must speak ENGLISH!” — and help. She can hook her up as a waitress.
The old friend (Anna Vlads) is a “model,” and has the glamorous wardrobe befitting her claimed place in the world. But “model” is a loose term in these quarters. Alina has to be on her guard if she doesn’t want to live down to the stereotype — “All Russian girls are gold-diggers.”
But she isn’t on her guard, and things turn ugly quickly, with unscrupulous club-owners, proffered “energy” pills and “model” cocktail waitresses coaxing Alina into doing whatever it takes to get that dough-re-mi.
Barenholtz tries that old “Moscow on the Hudson” trick of making a New York that’s entirely comprised of immigrants. The Russians have their stereotypes to live down to. But there’s always an Italian family living up to its cliches to balance the scales in such movies.
It’s a short drama that lurches through assorted abrupt changes in tone, temperament and relationships. Alina veers from overwhelmed and puzzled to outraged to smitten in 90 minutes as she tries to maintain her identity and finish her secret task.
No, she’s not a spy or a fake news peddler. The “mystery” isn’t that interesting.
Nor is the movie, with its over-familiar and limited view of the immigrant bubble Alina experiences, and her reactions to “crazy city” where Russian “girls” pan for gold in all the old familiar ways.
There would certainly have been a time that Barenholtz would have booked a movie like this, in English and Russian with English subtitles, in his NYC “indie” cinema. But it’s not to “Alina’s” credit that this time would have been about 1978, the last year this subject with this sort of treatment would have felt original or “independent.”
MPAA Rating: unrated, with explicit sexual situations, drug use
Credits:Written and directed by Ben Barenholtz. A Super 80 release.
Running time: 1:29