At a time when the U.S. borders are being made as hostile as possible to migrants, stories of hopeful outsiders betting the farm on the American Dream hit hard and true in the heart — even one as outwardly oddball as “Crystal Swan,” freshman helmer Darya Zhuk’s spirited, bittersweet comedy about a restless Belarusian DJ stuck farcically at the visa application stage. Zhuk’s film may be set in 1996, but the tension it outlines between young Eastern Europeans yearning for a new life and an older, more staid generation bewildered by the youth exodus still feels thoroughly of the moment. That topicality, bolstered by the Vice Films production imprint, should further carry this winningly small, scrappy debut — Belarus’s first Oscar submission in 22 years — across the festival circuit following its Karlovy Vary premiere. For Zhuk, writer Helga Landauer and ball-of-fire lead Alina Nasibullina, meanwhile, it’s an auspicious arrival.
From the moment early-twentysomething Velya (Nasibullina) enters the frame, it’s clear she doesn’t fit in the severe former Stalinist surrounds of Minsk. Her electric-blue wig and bright, eccentric outfits — a sort of rave-era update of Cyndi Lauper’s “She’s So Unusual” look — earn her mocking sneers from men on public transport, while Zhuk and costume designer Elena Hordionok underline the point by cladding all around her in shapeless shades of dust. Velya spends the nights working none-too-profitably spinning the decks on the city’s makeshift club scene, and the days at odds with her persistently disapproving mother (Svetlana Anikej) — a heritage museum manager big on Belarusian pride, whose frequent, chiding refrain is that “one should stay in her motherland.” “You’re not starving — it’s enough,” she adds, and while we share in Velya’s exasperated response to such words, “Crystal Swan” isn’t insensitive to the history of hardship that has made women like her mother settle for little.
Velya, of course, aspires to more than just “not starving,” and plans to pack her few bags at the earliest opportunity for Chicago, the birthplace of her beloved brand of house music. Trouble is, immigration authorities are unlikely to place much stock in her DJ skills; she needs to fake a more dully consistent employment history, and fast. Nothing if not a resourceful striver, she mocks up a résumé from a crystal factory in a desolate industrial town — only to mistype the intended phone number, potentially scuppering the entire effort when the authorities call to check her references.
And so, in a contrivance so protracted it almost bends back into banal realism, Velya must track down the household at the end of the wrong number, and persuade them not to blow her cover. Easier said than done, of course, and that’s before the family in question turns out to be a rowdy, discordant clan, unsympathetic to Velya’s plight and immersed in planning the wedding of eldest son Stepan (Ivan Mulin) — who takes more of an interest in the offbeat outsider than the rest.
The ensuing comedy of manners — bad ones, mostly — is steeped in perceptive politics of class difference and rural-urban conflict in a young country still determining its post-Soviet Union identity. Yet while some nuances may go over the heads of international audiences, its core social and economic frustrations are universal ones, driven by Velya’s fundamentally sympathetic wanderlust. That she seems to regard America as an unqualified land of opportunity is poignant, but with so little elbow room in her current life, one can understand the delusion; as it is, a taste of fish-out-of-water living in Belarusian backwaters might just darken her perspective a little. No community is as straightforward as it seems in Zhuk and Landauer’s irony-rich, tone-switching script: What begins as a kookily comic quest is complicated by the emergence of human tragedy, prejudice and sexual threat.
Nasibullina’s spiky, charismatic star turn, however, is undimmed by these tricky shifts in register, while Zhuk — herself a Minsk-to-Brooklyn transplant, graduating fluently to the longer form after several festival-traveled shorts — ensures the film maintains an antsy energy even through its most upsetting interludes. Carolina Costa’s lensing and Andrey Tolstik’s excellent, kitsch-tastic production design are both big on high-key primaries, making the film’s images practically burst forth from the square confines of the Academy ratio — an apt enough aesthetic, given that that’s exactly what our heroine intends to do from the small frame of her homeland. “Crystal Swan” offers no guarantee that she’ll make her escape, but its heart is unabashedly with the American Dreamers.