Were it not for several compelling distinguishing features, you could suggest that “Natasha,” the sophomore film from award-winning author David Bezmogis, is a familiar tale: A young man experiences a painful coming of age when a more worldly female enters his life. But a pair of rich central performances, an authentic eye for its second-generation immigrant milieu and a novelist’s comfort with ambiguity allow “Natasha” to modestly transcend its overpopulated genre.
The more sensationalist aspects of the story — the boy is 16, the girl just 14, and though not blood relatives, they are cousins — are dialed down to a dull roar of unease that rumbles beneath the placid, flat-lit suburban surface. And both the source of this unease, the eponymous Natasha, embodied with sulky, animal intensity by newcomer Sasha K. Gordon, and its sounding board, Mark, played by Alex Ozerov, are performed with such commitment that even at its moments of maximum elusiveness, Bezmogis’ film has an edge of realness sharp enough to cut.
Mark is the teenage son of well-assimilated yet culturally distinctive Russian Jewish emigre parents, who live a comfortably middle-class, tastefully nouveau lifestyle in a manicured residential area on the outskirts of Toronto. There are subtle but clever cues to their social status in Mark’s expensive-looking bike, the family’s fondness for al fresco dining and his elegant, youthful mother Bella’s (Deanna Dezmari) attention to her neat garden. As the film begins Mark’s uncle is about to be married to Zina (Aya-Tatyana Stolnits), a Russian woman he met online. Zina has a teenage daughter, Natasha, who speaks no English (a lot of the film’s dialogue is in subtitled Russian).
Only 14 years old (and it oddly works well here that the actress seems noticeably older than that), Natasha has a watchful, quiet air which is soon revealed to be a facade: She teases Mark with just how sexually experienced she is, and hints at a sordid past in Russia in which she likes to portray herself as nonchalantly complicit. Mark, whose rebellion against what is proper thus far has been confined to an offhand job as a weed delivery boy for his friend Rufus (Aiden Shipley), is ordered to look after Natasha, who loathes her mother Zina and threatens to disrupt the new marriage. The relationship between Mark and Natasha turns surreptitiously sexual, related in a fairly graphic, though never prurient manner by Guy Godfree’s unfussy camerawork. But Mark’s first experience of getting it on the regular also promises his first taste of the adult complications of jealousy, betrayal and manipulation.
Aside from some nice impressionist slo-mo, accompanied by lush electro indie pop songs that evoke the heedlessness and dissipation of privileged youth, Bezmogis keeps the film’s visuals on firmly realist, borderline prosaic lockdown. Part of the point here is a kind of bland, shop-fresh newness: When Natasha observes that only in the Russian countryside would you see such big, detached houses, Mark replies, “Three years ago, this was the country.” The very cleanness of the environs and the shallowness of the family’s roots — shallow as those of Bella’s freshly planted shrubs — lends a pervasive air of uncertainty and temporariness, that is reflective of Mark’s perilous life stage.
We should expect Bezmogis to navigate this material with precision: It is based on his own short story, published in 2004. Even so, some interesting avenues are left unexplored: Mark’s sister, who provides an interesting contrast to Natasha, is underused, and the ending lands on an ambivalent note that may work better on paper than on screen. But he believes in his story, and that shows, especially in the leeway he gives two excellent new performers to root around in their characters and make them real. In particular, Gordon arrives with an enigmatic, method-y performance that re-orients the film around Natasha, as a disquieting, itchy presence, devoid of innocence and lit with a spark of self-preservative malice. You can practically sense some inchoate, self-absorbed tragedy in her future, this manipulative 14-year-old would-be Bonnie searching the new-build suburbs of Toronto for her Clyde.