“Billy Elliot” meets “Good Bye Lenin!” doesn’t quite do justice to the subtler dimensions of Russian period comedy “My Dad Baryshnikov,” but it gets across the major flavors. The story of a ballet-obsessed Moscow adolescent boy growing up during the Perestroika era who pretends his father is really Mikhail Baryshnikov, writer-helmer Dmitry Povolotsky’s semi-autobiographical pic is an endearing crowdpleaser with plenty of fest export potential; it could even work as a specialty theatrical item in the right hands. Domestically, pic could get upscale auds dancing to its tune.
Set in Moscow around 1986, the plot pivots around Boris Fishkin (Dmitri Viskubenko, who has a good line in poker face), a scrawny, underdeveloped 14-year-old whose Jewish surname sets him slightly apart from his peers at his performing-arts academy. He lives with his mother, Larissa (Anna Mikhalkova, always welcome), who tutors others in English and Russian and occasionally sleeps with some of her clients. When Larissa is busy with these especially private lessons, Boris goes downstairs to hang out with his paternal grandparents (Ilya Rutberg and Marina Politseimako) in their apartment, but like his mother, they never discuss why Boris’ dad, whom he doesn’t remember, isn’t around.
At school, Boris demonstrates lots of enthusiasm for dancing, but rather less natural skill and strength. He has a big crush on Marina (Lilya Yamada), the class prima, but no interest in bossy classmate-neighbor Katya (Ksenia Surkova), who clearly has the hots for Boris.
One of his mother’s American “students” gives Boris a banned VHS copy of “White Nights,” the 1985 thriller starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was at the time still a persona non grata in the Soviet Union owing to his defection. Mesmerized, Boris watches the ballet scenes repeatedly and tries to copy Baryshnikov’s moves. Half out of childish fantasy, half out of a desire to impress, he tells his classmates he’s really Baryshnikov’s illegitimate son, and when his pirouettes begin to improve, everyone starts to believe him. His stock rises even further when he starts dealing in black-market goods acquired through a sideline he runs with his older friend Vovan (Mark Ganeev). But if he were to get caught, it would spell curtains for his placement at the Bolshoi Theater.
The filmmakers easily could have coasted on the pic’s spot-on period details — from the women’s poodle-fluffy hairstyles to the choice of Boney M on the soundtrack — for laughs alone, so it’s to Povolotsky’s credit that he wrings humor from the sharp dialogue and well-observed situational comedy. Without ever getting drippy, pic also has its poignant moments, from the way it resolves the question of Boris’ paternity to its inclusion of an Afghan war veteran who’s lost both his legs to a landmine.
Some mainstream auds may be disappointed that “My Dad Baryshnikov” doesn’t end on a more resolutely upbeat, triumphant blast rather than the wry note it strikes, while others will cherish it precisely for its understated, realist conclusion. Tech credits are plain and simple, never upstaging the main action but not terribly remarkable, either.