It’s rare to see a film that’s so simultaneously affecting, funny, and inventively crafted as Wes Hurley’s Potato Dreams of America. A dark comedy infused with magical realism, the film tells the moving story of Hurley’s experience growing up gay in the former Soviet Union and then immigrating to the U.S. with his mother, Lena, a brave and principled prison physician who can only get out of the USSR as a mail-order bride. The two navigate the strange vicissitudes of life in the U.S., together coping with Hurley’s well-meaning but clueless teachers, his sometimes cruel classmates, his unpredictable stepfather, and his own evolving identity as an out gay man.
The story alone is remarkable enough that it would be entirely absorbing even if it were only told in plain, conventional, realistic narrative form. But Hurley makes some compelling choices in the way he crafts his film that heighten its impact. Most notably, he underlines the sharp differences between his life in Russia and his life in the U.S. with a dramatic mid-movie shift in visual style. During the first part of the movie, when young Hurley (nicknamed “Potato”) and his mother are still living in the Soviet Union, his child’s-eye view of his family, school, and home is conveyed through deliberately stagy, stylized, frequently absurdist dramedy, in which the progress of his life is interspersed with some well-placed cuts to an imaginary movie or vaudeville play of the “real” action unfolding before us. Potato even has an imaginary friend in Jesus Christ, portrayed by gay icon Jonathan Bennett. The visual world of this part of the film is anti-realistic, by turns evoking a school play, a dollhouse world, and—frighteningly—the Brechtian nightmare of a Soviet prison. All of these elements put us into Potato’s view of his world, which is marked by an incomplete but intuitive understanding of the significance of what he sees and hears.
In the second part of the film, we enter a different kind of heightened reality—more realistic than the first part but still clearly framed as a filmed world, almost like a period sitcom, with a bright, cheery soundtrack and sunny establishing shots of perfect residential exteriors. (This almost-sitcom effect is helped by Hurley’s choice of Dan Lauria—the dad from The Wonder Years—as his stepfather.) In this part of the story, the characters are portrayed by an entirely new set of actors who, in the style of the leads in Moonlight, resemble the previous actors only passingly. This choice works beautifully to suggest that we, along with the characters, are in a completely new world in this part of the narrative. It amplifies the stark drama of the characters’ departure from their old lives and causes us to feel that starkness alongside them.
It would have been possible for Hurley to become so absorbed in his film’s formal cleverness and adventurousness that audiences became detached from the emotional truth of the story. However, he cannily avoids this trap by keeping the pacing tight and focusing most of our attention on the inner worlds of the characters. The actors’ expressive performances are central here. Noteworthy among these is Sera Barbieri’s taut, coiled embodiment of the Soviet Lena, whose passionate moral convictions vie with the necessity of submitting to corrupt authority in order to protect her son’s life. Marya Sea Kaminski as American Lena reveals the same emotional tension as she mediates between the demands of her new husband’s authoritarianism and her need to protect her son’s psychological well-being. Both actresses reveal Lena’s intelligence, her moral courage, and her feeling heart in bravura performances that teleport us into the mind of a woman who faces unimaginable difficulties in her quest to protect her son and live freely herself.
The actors who portray Potato are similarly talented and committed to their roles. Promising teen actor Hersh Powers portrays Potato’s early adolescent uncertainty and angst with wit and intelligence. As the older version of Potato, Tyler Bocock (a ringer for a younger Tom Hiddleston) is charming in his befuddlement about life in America; he’s a pleasure to watch as his version of Potato grows wiser and more confident. The movie’s bigger names bring their reliable and considerable skill sets to bear on their roles. Lea DeLaria in particular is delightful here, portraying Potato’s grandmother with her trademark crusty puckishness.
Viewers who remember what B. Ruby Rich called the New Queer Cinema in the ’80s and ’90s—that movement in which queer filmmakers with micro-budgets opted to tell queer stories and did so in a frank, raw, unapologetic, creative way—might well see Potato Dreams of America as a kind of latter-day entry into that school of filmmaking. As a descendent of that lineage, Hurley reminds us that a true and truthful story can often be told best by a fearlessly creative filmmaker who lived that story. His is a story well worth telling and a film well worth seeing.