If Marvel’s Wandavision has left you aching for more of an Eastern-European protagonist understanding their life through the fantasy of the cinema they grew up with, Wes Hurley’s Potato Dreams of America might conceivably be the film for you. An autobiographical work, the film tells the story of Potato (real name Vasily) and his mother Lena, a mail-order bride, both during Potato’s childhood in Russia, as the USSR transitions to capitalism, and following a bold move to America, where grows up. Changing the shape of what could have otherwise been a paint-by-numbers coming-of-age, Potato has to deal with the same issues in two different worlds, coming to understand his sexuality, religion, national identity, and sense of self on both Russian and American terms. One of the cultural compasses Potato uses to navigate these two confusing, divergent worlds is film, from his childhood spent re-enacting contraband American films to the illicit LGBT rental-videos that help him understand his budding sexuality. To match this divide, Hurley employs a bizarre and bold sensibility, complete with musical numbers and Jesus as an imaginary friend, and vibrant visual style in the film’s first half, where Potato’s childhood is bright and full, even if threatened by the dangers Lena tries to protect him from. Once in America, not only does the film’s particular cinematic language change, but so do its actors, with the harsh light of the US illuminating an entirely different perception of Potato and his mother.
Unfortunately, this exercise in stark contrast doesn’t work as well as it could have — the brilliance of the first act, set in Russia, only accentuates how the film’s American half suffers in comparison. Where the first half of the film is effectively stylized, striking just the right balance of whimsy and grit, its back half is largely devoid — intentionally, but no less dulling — of the style that lends such charm to the early going. Likewise, the plot’s rhythms become jarring in places, particularly in the case of a late plot-twist regarding Potato’s stepfather that, despite being true to writer-director Hurley’s life, is inorganically incorporated. While it might mirror the unexpected twists and turns of life itself, Hurley’s second act suffers for it. Where implications of things outside of Potato’s perspective are often integrated in more subtle ways, such as the rampant anti-Semitism and homophobia of the first act, the film ultimately veers away from this tack, ending the initially promising effort on a sharp downward trajectory.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.