“Potato Dreams of America” is a giddy gay fantasia on Russians leaving for the Promised Land, a romp bubbling with wit, wry commentary and visual DIY visual invention.
That’s how it begins, anyway. Writer-director Wes Hurley (born Vasili Naumenko) turns this version of his “true story” into social satire about escaping the former and “still the same” U.S.S.R., fleeing homophobia, anti-Semitism and backwardness there, and coping with versions of the same thing in the U.S.
The Russian stuff is fresh and funny, a child’s memory play of a movie about what stands out about his first home. But a lot of that freshness and spark evaporates as the film shifts locales and covers well-worn “coming out” tropes after Coming to America.
Little “Potato” (Hersh Powers), as his mother (Sera Barbieri) calls him, remembers the abusive marriage his parents shared and coming of age in the last gasps of Soviet era Vladivostok. Mom was a doctor in the prison system, and after her divorce they lived in a cramped apartment with her racist, judgmental mother (Lea DeLaria, hilarious).
Amid the blackouts, shortages and propagandistic totalitarian TV, little Vasili and his pals revel in telling each other the plots to Americans movies like “Total Recall,” lying when they run out of material.
“I saw ‘Star Wars: Episode 35” at uh, my cousin’s friend’s house. Here’s how it goes!
When they’re not lying about cinema, his classmates are all about the anti-Semitism (Potato feels for his Jewish classmate) and homophobia. His future looks bleak, as it’s either join the police (who are murdering inmates in Mom’s jail) or “the Russian Army,” which his grandma assures him “You vill never survive!”
Potato remembers himself barking, “The communists are NO BETTER than the Nazis” to a teacher, refusing to wear a red scarf on school picture day. And even if that isn’t true, his fate is sealed when the U.S.S.R. collapses, a new “renegade” TV station comes on the air and he gets his first tweenage glimpses at the homoerotic pleasures of a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.
Thank heavens his mother applies to one of those “be a bride for a lonely American” services, and they wind up with the nice, well-off John (Dan Laria of “The Wonder Years)”). He’s into toy trains, Russian Orthodox Christianity and “control.” Maybe not so nice after all.
Have Potato (now played by Tyler Bocock) and his Mom (Marya Sea Kaminski) leapt from the frying panski and into the fire?
“Potato” takes a sharp turn towards “conventional” once we get past our hero’s early efforts to fit into an American high school, mismanaged by an overly-helpful teacher, thrown in with “his own kind” (a Russian emigre, just as bigoted as the people Potato moved away from) and finding a girl so he can be her gay BFF.
It’s never a bad film, although one plot twist is eye-rollingly convenient, and the third act wraps up with a clumsy abruptness. But there’s no getting around how the air goes out of the balloon shortly after we leave the invention (mimed dance, shadow play scenes, all managed on the cheap) and deprivation of Russia.
The laughs are both easy and biting “over there.” Grandmas gripes that “See? I told you capitalism wasn’t going to be all that” when the Soviet empire collapses. “Same old Russia,” same blackouts, cruelty, petty prejudices. One minor improvement? “Toilet paper.”
The performances are sprightly and fun, and the worst things you can say about the American half of the movie is that we’ve seen the gay and out and cutting a wide swath through the clubs thing many times, often used, as it is here, to illustrate losing shackles and experiencing “freedom” (see the earliest Almodovar films).
The novelty of the Russian scenes is in recalling how limited the culture was, where books and classical music and dance were celebrated and shoved down the public’s throats, and all the kids revolted by talking up “Hollywood movies” and their “happy endings” and memorizing Ninja Turtle “CowaBUNGAs.”
Given the Russian influence on the most gullible third of the American electorate, any film that reminds us why no one moves there and why people there, even today, dream of fleeing, is a good thing.
Hurley’s efforts to wrestle with the role of religion in the culture are more haphazard and under-developed. Christian proselytizing in Russia lets Jesus (Jonathan Bennett) move in with Potato and his family. In America, Christianity is trotted out just long enough to show it as the “opiate” of control freak men.
Still, even if Hurley has only one movie in him and this hit-and-miss proposition is it, Hurley’s personal story is fresh and engaging enough to stand out, a coming-of-age saga with modest ambitions that get to the heart of some still “self evident” truths — the freedom to be who you are, life your life and pursue your own dream of America.
Rating: unrated, sex
Cast: Sera Barbieri, Hersh Powers, Marya Sea Kaminski, Tyler Bocock, Jonathan Bennett, Dan Laria and Lea DeLaria
Credits: Scripted and directed by Wes Hurley. A Dark Star release.
Running time: 1:35