The question of how to convey characters speaking a language other than English in a fully English-language production is one that many a director of an exotically-set Hollywood production or lumpy Europudding has faced over the years. For those who simply cannot resort to subtitles, the artifice of heavily accented English dialogue is a stilted standby. “Potato Dreams of America” finds an unusual way around the problem, though it takes some time for its cleverness to emerge.
Wes Hurley’s autobiographical comedy of a gay Russian teen and his plucky single mother seeking a new life in 1980s America begins in unexpected fashion: A title card tells us we’re in Gorbachev-era Vladivostok, yet the unhappy family tableau we’re plunged into is performed in broad, brash American speech. “Our lives are like Russian movies, nothing good ever happens,” observes young Vasili (Hersh Powers). That is as may be; to us, at first glance, his life looks more like a U.S. sitcom.
There’s a method to this disconnect, as Hurley eventually cleaves his debut feature into two distinct halves: a shticky, mordantly comic portrayal of Russian squalor, played out in a register that American audiences will find comfortingly familiar, and a study of immigrant life in the States that very suddenly morphs into a different film altogether. Gone are the stylized staging and heightened delivery of the Russian scenes, along with the actors playing Vasili and his mother. Their replacements speak the faltering, Russian-accented English of nervous new émigrés; the world is standard American suburbia, though viewers are forced to see it with new, disoriented eyes. This hard, sharp pivot is the trump card of Hurley’s otherwise gentle, fuzzy-edged coming-of-ager, which ultimately falls a bit short on its radical promise.
Nicknamed “Potato” by his doting mother, young Vasili (Hersh Powers) is not a child cut out for the bleakest streets of the Soviet Union. Fanciful, kind-natured and cluelessly aroused by Jean-Claude van Damme, he fosters whatever modest hopes and dreams he has from the Hollywood movies he gleefully watches via a crack aerial setup. They’re shared by his mother Lena (Sera Barbieri), a prison doctor repulsed by the corrupt government she’s made to serve, though she knows they can only be pursued by unromantic means: registering with a mail-order bride service for American men, and hoping for the best.
“The best,” it turns out, is John (Dan Lauria), a gruffly right-wing schlub who flies Lena and Vasili (now played by Marya Sea Kaminksi and Tyler Bocock, respectively) out to Seattle, only to gradually reveal the many reasons he hasn’t found a wife closer to home. It’s not the “Pretty Woman”-style outcome of their daydreams, but for mother and son alike, it’s close to a life-saving move. Vincent Pierce’s cinematography brightens and breathes, while Catherine Joy’s score — taking over, in another nifty transition, from composer Joshua Kohl, who scores the Russian sections — likewise adopts a softer, sweeter tone. It’s not an American dream without complications, however, as the focus shifts to Vasili’s anxious coming-out process, where the heteronormative Hollywood films of his youthful fantasies are of little help. Instead, it’s Gregg Araki’s brazenly queer “The Living End” that comes to the rescue.
“Potato Dreams of America” comes with a storied genesis. Hurley — who was, sure enough, born Vasili Naumenko in Vladivostok — previously adapted his upbringing into the 2017 documentary short “Little Potato,” which won top honors at that year’s SXSW festival, before adapting that in turn into the VR piece “Potato Dreams.” This feature-length expansion, once more granted a SXSW berth, picks up the heightened reenactments of “Potato Dreams” and crystallizes them into pure narrative form. The transition isn’t exactly seamless. The two shorts’ more experimental inclinations survive as remnants in the Russian sections, where the starchily layered compositions and cardboard fakery of Kristen Bonnalie’s production design lend a note of dark, expressionistic absurdism to Lena and Vasili’s misery.
If America brings contrasting stability, it also brings some beigely conventional storytelling — along with a pair of pat, abbreviated “it gets better” arcs that, following the film’s devoted namechecking of Araki, speak to a less textured strain of queer cinema. You can practically sense young Vasili assimilating into mainstream America in tandem with the filmmaking, which feels a neat trick in some respects, and a copout in others. The very existence of “Potato Dreams of America” is its own happy ending: It’s a calling card, at least, that prompts curiosity over what stories, or whose stories, Hurley will tell next.