Visually arresting but dramatically murky, U.S.- and Russian-shot “Beyond the Ocean” would have made more sense — and exacted more viewer patience — if programmed in the avant-garde Frontiers sidebar at Sundance rather than the dramatic competition. It’s an offbeat, evanescent bubble of vaguely retro experimentation that will float right by most viewers. Cinematheques, new-director fest slots and other fringe-supportive outlets are signaled.
Dual narrative tracks — such as they can be sussed out — unfold in rural Russia a couple of decades ago and contempo NYC, respectively captured in luminous, formal B&W and jittery color compositions. Striking former segs offer fragmentary insight into young Pitsee’s (Tatiana Kamina) girlhood, evoked as a sort of primitive-mystic naturalist hymn a la Dovzhenko. When a toddler, she struggles to cheer her sour, downtrodden mother; handed over to a salty grandma (Tatiana Kuznetsova) in adolescence, she fends off the bachelor uncle (Donovan Barton) who “loved me too much.”
NYC sections find a much less impetuous adult protag (played by Giulietta Masina look-alike Dasha Volga, who’s got the gamin thing down pat), a new arrival in pursuit of her unborn child’s father, whom she’d met in Moscow. Good-looking slacker type Alex (Rik Nagel) seems happy enough to see her, and jealous of any potential rivals; yet he’s in no hurry to meet his obligations toward Pitsee, or anyone else. He sloughs her off on goofy pal Dog Walker (performance poet Sage), a trip-hop DJ with extra crash space at his apartment.
Killing time working at a hock shop, our moon-faced heroine isn’t sure what she wants. But it probably won’t be unreliable Alex or the eventually smitten Dog, let alone the dreadlocked bike messenger she impulsively gets it on with one day. Ambiguous fadeout has her leaving the city for points unknown, her self-determination clear even if her plans are anything but. One thing is certain: Men can be equally swinish on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Beyond the Ocean” works best when recalling the absurdist juxtapositions and surreal imagery of the 1960s Eastern Euro–Soviet new wave. Notable set pieces include a witchy grandmother’s grotesque “fish soup” feast and a libidinous chase through stunning deep-focus landscapes. Primary entertainment value in the grittier New York scenes comes from geeksome Dog — thesp Sage is at once annoying, inspired and spontaneous enough to suggest this character isn’t too far from his offscreen personality. Most impressive performer, however, is wee 4 -year-old Kamina. Through her untutored, poignant reactions, pic’s flashback ambiguities briefly make sense as a bewildered child’s-eye view of adult misery.
Color footage (shot by Ted Sappington) is deliberately blurred at times, recalling the subtly dislocated imagery of another lost-in-Manhattan tale, “High Art.” Post-synched dialogue in Russian segs underlines their retro, cineaste feel. While other tech aspects are solid, this intriguing, if unsatisfying, feature’s major selling point by far is Phil Robertson’s widescreen B&W lensing of rural Russian locations.