“Brighton 4th” tells a gentle, naturalistic story of parental devotion and sacrifice, unfolding mostly in the former Soviet émigré enclave of Brighton Beach, N.Y. The tragicomedy nabbed a trifecta of awards at the recent Tribeca Festival, including best international narrative feature, screenplay and actor. It marks the third fiction outing by Georgian helmer Levan Koguashvili (“Blind Dates”) and follows a former Olympic wrestling champ from Tbilisi who goes to New York to help his adult son get his life back on track. The tender screenplay by Boris Frumin captures characters living in the new world in much the same fashion as they did in the old. It also offers a touching showcase for Levan Tediashvili, a non-professional actor and real-life wrestler. Boutique art-house distributors should take a look at this festival favorite.
A preamble in Tbilisi establishes the main character, Kakhi (Tediashvili), as a kind, even-tempered, nonjudgmental problem solver as he comes to the aid of his hot-headed, gambling-addicted brother (Temur Gvalia). These qualities will come in handy when Kakhi leaves his injured wife (Laura Rekhviashvili) and beloved dog and takes off for the States with a suitcase full of Georgian cheese to sort out son Soso (Giorgi Tabidze).
Unfortunately, only child Soso, who is meant to be studying for his medical license in the U.S., seems to be more a chip off his uncle’s block. He’s accrued a $14,000 gambling debt to local mobster Amir (Yuriy Zur) and is working a dead-end job as a mover. He also needs an even bigger chunk of change to pay for a green card marriage. But at least social worker Lena (Nadezhda Mikhalkova, the youngest daughter of famed director Nikita Mikhalkov), his potential bride, is a lovely woman.
Despite whatever disappointment Kakhi might feel due to his son’s predicament, director Koguashvili continually shows the deep affection the two men have for each other in convincing vignettes. The most endearing moments include Soso buying his father gloves at a street market, checking to see if they fit and if the elder man will actually wear them, as well as the two of them lying in their bunk beds as Kakhi leads them through an exercise and breathing routine.
The shabby hostel on Brighton Beach’s 4th Street where the father and son stay is run by Kakhi’s sister-in-law (Tsutsa Kapanadze) and replete with fellow Georgians and assorted other former Soviets who share Russian as a lingua franca, as well as a taste for communal eating, drinking and song. Among the residents making the most of his short screen time is opera singer-turned-hotel doorman Sergo (the late Kakhi Kavsadze, a legend of Soviet and Georgian cinema in his final role). As Kakhi tries to earn money to help his son, he becomes involved in some of the other denizens’ hare-brained schemes, including an absurdist one where they kidnap a Kazakh hotelier (Tolepbergen Baisakalov) who has been cheating his Georgian cleaning ladies.
After the hapless Soso falls into further trouble, Kakhi enlists some local sportsmen to help him find an honorable solution. The final poignant events climax in a heart-rending performance of a very old Georgian folk song by Sergo and friends as a polyphonic male chorus. Indeed, traditional tunes are used throughout the film to fine effect, rather than an original score.
As with “Blind Dates,” also written by Frumin, the melancholy-infused narrative neatly balances rueful humor with genuine sweetness. Some scenes also constitute sly foreshadowing, as in Kakhi’s transport from the airport.
The mix of professional and non-professional performers adds to the film’s naturalism, although in the scene where Kakhi tries his his hand at being a carer, one of the non-pros plays a tad too broadly. However, the dignified and quietly charismatic Tediashvili’s understated turn is definitely worthy of the Tribeca acting prize. Nor is this his first outing as an actor: He previously starred in Giorgi Shengelaia’s historical epic “Khareba and Gogia” (1987).
While capturing the unique character and texture of Brighton Beach, the visuals by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Phedon Papamichael support the notion that many of the characters remain trapped in a mental and physical space much like the one they left in the former Soviet Union. The film also benefits from the inclusion of some black-and-white archive footage from Tediashvili’s wrestling career.