There are a few elements of writer-director Philip Yuryev’s “The Whaler Boy” that are off-putting enough to warrant addressing them straight off.
It opens with a luridly-detailed behind-the-scenes look at an online sex-chat brothel, a scene that goes on longer than anybody other than the prurient would think necessary. We only figure out its relationship to the native lads of a Bering Straight village when we see them gathered around a laptop, lapping up the poses of HollySweet999.
This boys’ coming-of-age/obsession-with-sex-chat-hostess drama all but erases women from their world. It’s not enough that the unsophisticated local teens get lost in porn. They aren’t given the chance, in this story, to relate to real women — mothers, peers, etc. — in their midst.
If there’s a morality tale in the dangers of falling into objectified, fantasy women who exist only on a screen, it’s told without the young men confronted by the reality of their lives, their prospects and how members of the opposite sex fit into their world.
Then there’s the subsistence killing that the menfolk here do to keep one and all alive — hunting whales in motorized skiffs. That’s also detailed and bloody and won’t be to every taste.
Yuryev’s debut feature introduces us to Leshka and Kolyan, two young fellows from Chukotka (far Eastern Siberia) who pitch in on the whale hunts, have learned how to break down the carcass and are the ones designated to deliver meat to various neighbors too old to hunt or make the trek down to the beach to share in the catch.
Lyoshka or “Leshka” (Vladimir Onokhov) lives with someone like that, his elderly grandfather (Nikolay Tatato), a whimsical sort who is always warning the kid (in Russian, with English subtitles) “I’m dying soon, maybe this summer.” He’s serious.
There’s not much to do in their Arctic summer — just whale hunting, whale filleting and aimless rides on their shared motorbike with Kolyan (Vladimir Lyubimtsev). But the menfolk there have discovered sex sites on the Internet, and one American site and American “hostess” (Kristina Asmus) leaves the two teens lost in lust.
Kolyan affects a more worldly air — based on having seen this sort of content before. But poor Leshka is just gone. He sneaks off to borrow the community laptop, cranks up the family generator and tunes in. He talks to the screen, not realizing she can’t hear him. Not that she talks. She just poses and pouts and fields comments and slips off for “private chats” for paying customers.
Leshka goes down this rabbit hole so deep he’s sure Kolyan is “cheating” with her, creating a rift that will end with blows. He’s hapless with the gorgeous blonde hooker (Maria Chuprinskaia) the locals fly into town. Yeah, that’s a little “off-putting” too.
And as he pines away, wondering how far “Detroit” is, studying phrases in English to use to chat with “HollySweet999,” he makes note of the local lore of people who fled from here across the Bering Straight to Alaska, America, with its “cities” and “big buildings,” it’s “McDonald’s” and its lusty online sex workers.
Yuryev’s film is on its firmest footing in scenes capturing village life, the routines of a whale-based diet/economy. He doesn’t go into documentary-level detail, although we see a local dance (an instrumental rock combo is flown in) and the like. There’s little social life to speak of. And I was unclear as to who exactly paid to fly in a hooker, just as the film left me unsure of exactly how the locals get by, survive and what they do for money. Totally state supported?
Yuryev is much more interested in the pubescent parts of the tale — teen titillation, masturbation, an online obsession that upsets the natural order of this world — than in the above-the-Arctic-Circle world itself.
The third act is an odd odyssey that sends Leshka in search of his fantasy girl and pushes the picture into parable territory. It’s warmer than much of what came earlier, but it’s warmth with a brittle edge.
There’s merit in this story, which takes its hero on a circular path back to what anchors him in his world. But the novelty of the setting and the characters doesn’t mean we give the storyteller, who gets lost in the sordid sexual side of life above the Arctic Circle, a pass.
There’s acknowledging this technological “change” that even the most remote parts of the world are seeing, and nothing wrong with recognizing that hormones rage even in the land of the Midnight Sun. What Yuryev does, more often than is necessary, is wallow in it. And when he does, it’s not just “The Boy Whaler” who seems lost.
Rating: unrated, nudity, sex, whale hunting, violence
Cast: Vladimir Onokhov, Vladimir Lyubimtsev, Nikolay Tatato and Kristina Asmus
Credits: Scripted and directed by Philipp Yuryev. A Film Movement+ release (Jan. 14).
Running time: 1:33