There’s that old chestnut saying that truth is stranger than fiction, and it would appear that no one knows this more than writer/director Wes Hurley. An autobiographical tale of growing up queer in the USSR in the 1980’s, Potato Dreams of America is an often bizarre, occasionally sad, but completely unique feature that, however trite its message may be, celebrates that there’s nothing more beautiful than being your authentic self.
The “Potato” of the title is the nickname given to young Vasili (Hersh Powers), a sexually curious pre-teen who escapes the harsh realities of the Russia around him by indulging in the American movies he’s able to secure on his limited-channelled television. Though loved by his deliriously hard-working mother, Lena (Sera Barbieri), a medical doctor who tends to prisoners, Potato’s home life is a mixture of confusion and oppression, and when homophobia runs rampant in the ever-changing country, he attempts to make an understanding of the new normal by creating an imaginary friend in his interpretation of Jesus (Jonathan Bennett); think Jojo Rabbit‘s distinct interpretation of Taikia Waititi’s Hitler and you have an idea of the film’s mentality, with Bennett playing Christ as a freeloader with a penchant for flamboyance.
Wanting to find a way out of their country, Lena starts corresponding with a man in America as part of a mail-order bride scenario, eventually securing them a home in Seattle. It’s here where the film recasts Lena and Potato, now played as a more middle-aged mother and delicate teenager by Marya Sea Kaminski and Tyler Bocock, respectively. It similarly subtly addresses Hurley’s interesting take on presenting his character’s European ethnicity, as in the realms of the Unites States, Lena and Potato speak with a Russian accent, whilst the earlier sequences in Russia saw them speak in American accents, leaning into the notion that they only truly have an accent within the context of another country.
Whilst there’s a certain freedom to be had for Potato and Lena in Seattle, they live under the thumb of Lena’s ultra-religious husband (Dan Lauria), which only really becomes more of an issue when Potato’s sexual awakening starts to blossom and it becomes increasingly more difficult to deny his true nature. Potato Dreams of America has all the narrative notes you’d expect from a story of this nature, but Hurley makes it a point to present it in such a way that’s almost deliberately amateur. There’s a John Waters-ness to the telling that will either put people right off or earn enthusiastic embracement; I am personally somewhere in the middle where I can appreciate the bold choices, but can’t help but criticise the fact that the story feels like it deserves a more passionate telling. Though given this is Hurley’s own, I’m aware of the critical irony that comes with that statement.
Ultimately this is a sweet film, one that is an evident love letter to the making of movies and how that magic manifests itself to different people. This is a bold way to tell a story, and clearly the messy, kitschy qualities of cinema is something Hurley has responded to, it’s just a shame that a little more restraint wasn’t adhered to as the result can’t help but feel artificial.
TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Potato Dreams of America is screening as part of this year’s SXSW Film Festival, which is being presented virtually between March 16th and 20th, 2021. For more information head to the official SXSW website.