Barry Shurchin’s autobiographical account of his childhood as a 9-year-old Russian immigrant in late-’70s Gotham piles on one traumatic event after another: suicide, beatings, sexual abuse, murder — little Daanyik is spared nothing in the free world. But the storyline develops so erratically that it lacks any internal momentum, with some scenes unfolding in exhaustive detail and others seemingly missing, as if whole chunks had been shot and later edited out. The film’s violent, angry kid’s p.o.v., though strongly conveyed, hardly invites sympathy for its pint-size protagonist and will likely prove too hostile to achieve much traction in limited release.
Coming home drunk to the family’s Moscow apartment on the eve of their departure for America, Daanyik’s father, Deema (Harry Hamlin), resents the whole notion of repatriation, driven to leave by his wife’s fear of rising anti-Semitism and the government’s sudden encouragement of Jewish exodus. Once installed in America (the film cutting from a Moscow flat to rattier New York digs), and working a menial job far below his former position as an automobile designer, Deema becomes even drunker, more dissatisfied and morose, melodramatically slitting his wrist in front of wife and son. He dies by suicide, though probably not right then and there (clear linear exposition isn’t Shurchin’s forte).
Unwillingly sent to a Yeshiva school, Daanyik (Samuel J. Dixon) encounters a kindly, parable-spouting head rabbi (a voluminously bearded Paul Sorvino) and a sadistic, sexually abusive rabbi (Michael Lerner, similarly hirsute), whose nose Daanyik self-righteously bloodies. A short fight seals Daanyik’s friendship with other Russian kids, the boychiks ecstatically taking turns riding a bike around a warehouse in a rare upbeat moment — until the local teens show up to bully and torment them. Meanwhile, Daanyik’s mother, Meela (Angela Gots), terrified of surviving on her own, hooks up with menacing, bar owner Tolik (Andrew Divoff), an acquaintance from Moscow who knocks her around and creatively “disciplines” Daanyik.
The actors gamely flesh out their one-dimensional parts, despite having to speak heavily accented English with scattered, subtitled Russian dialogue. But, at one point, Deema complains about the difficulty of speaking Russian, painstakingly eking out a simple English phrase that contrasts mightily with the fluent, colloquial (if accented) English he has been speaking all through the pic, consistency be damned.
Perhaps the strangest element of “Immigrant” is Shurchin’s repeated use of interpolated “found footage” of New York, evocatively edited and scored — footage that, oddly enough, belongs to periods decades before the pic’s timeframe. Suggestive of a mythic vision of the city that stands apart and belongs to no one in the film, it speaks to helmer’s Shurchin’s primitive power as an image-maker, but constantly clashes with his awkwardness as a storyteller.