Potato Dreams of America (Dir. Wes Hurley, 2021)

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.

Black Widow (Cate Shortland, 2021)

Long overdue for reasons ranging from garden-variety studio sexism to serial pandemic-related delays, Black Widow is a top-tier entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It earns a place alongside the likes of Black Panther (2018), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) for its vividly imagined world, whiz-bang action sequences, muscular direction, and terrific screenplay (written by screenwriters Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson, and Eric Pearson, in collaboration with director Cate Shortland and performers Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh). More significantly, Black Widow also has real heart (in its heroine and in the broken, bonkers found-family at its center) and a compelling feminist theme—one that raises the stakes in the film considerably.

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Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)

Criterion’s new 4K restoration of Claire Denis’ remarkable 1999 film looks absolutely gorgeous—stark, luminous, vividly colorful, and precise in every fine line and minute detail. That precision suits the film’s subject: a tightly disciplined French Foreign Legion troop under the demanding leadership of an obsessive sergeant. A loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and a quasi-sequel to Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1960), the film tracks the gradual psychological unraveling of Chief Master Sergeant Galoup as he develops a jealous fixation on a new recruit, Gilles Sentain, whose beautiful face and ineffable cool make him a favorite both with the other legionnaires and with Galoup’s superior, Commander Forestier. Envy, repressed desire, and festering rage commingle in Galoup’s deteriorating mind, and the innocent Sentain suffers for it. As the film proceeds, we are inexorably drawn into the inevitable tragedy of their story, even as we revel in the startling beauty of Denis’ extraordinary vision.

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First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2019)


Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is, in most ways, of a piece with her previous films. Quiet in tone and measured in pacing, First Cow continues Reichardt’s sympathetic and observant explorations of the lives of outsiders and people on the margins. Like the settler women of Meek’s Cutoff and the homeless drifter of Wendy and Lucy, First Cow’s protagonists don’t have meaningful control of their destinies, despite their efforts to lift themselves out of their assigned places in the social and economic order. And like the radical environmentalists of Night Moves, First Cow’s protagonists aren’t above breaking laws in pursuit of their aims. First Cow, however, is perhaps the first Reichardt film that combines her keen-eyed artistry with genuine entertainment. Less grim than Wendy and Lucy, less cynical than Night Moves, more accessible than Meek’s Cutoff, and more tightly plotted than Certain Women, First Cow is an engrossing, engaging study of life in early nineteenth-century Oregon and two of its unlucky but ambitious inhabitants. Adapted from a novel by longtime Reichardt collaborator Jonathan Raymond, it has the rhythms of a folktale—and the lessons of one—detailing what might happen when clever, resourceful striving tips over into dangerous hubris.

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VIFF 2019: And Then We Danced (Dir. Levan Akin, 2019)


Levan Akin’s gorgeous coming-of-age tale And Then We Danced fairly glows with beauty, pain, hope, and joy. It is a thoroughly transporting film, one that makes you wish that you were part of its hero’s world instead of being a mere observer.

And Then We Danced is set in the nation of Georgia and features the hauntingly beautiful dance and music of traditional Georgian culture. The film follows Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a college-aged member-in-training of the National Georgian Ensemble, a troupe specializing in traditional dance. Merab has been chastely dating his dance partner, Mary (Ana Javakishvili), with whom he was first paired when they were just children, and the two have an easy, playful rapport that comes from many years of knowing each other and dancing together. If Mary suspects that her partner is gay, she keeps that suspicion under wraps until the truth becomes too obvious to ignore—which it does when a new dancer, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), suddenly arrives from out of town and begins to claim more and more of Merab’s attention. Irakli is dashing and mysterious, and Merab is soon utterly fascinated by him. A relationship that should proceed apace, however, is complicated by the fact that both young men live in a sternly judgmental culture where being gay is a criminal offense. Further complexities arise when auditions are announced for a single, prestigious position in an ensemble piece, a position for which Merab and Irakli find themselves competitors.

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Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (dir. Pamela Green, 2018)


Too few people know about the extraordinary woman who arguably created cinema as we know it. With La Fée aux Choux (1896), Alice Guy-Blaché became the first director in history to use film to do something that we now take for granted as the obvious job of the movies: to tell a story. (Some critics and scholars make a case for the Lumière brothers as the inventors of fiction film with the staged prank depicted in their 1895 L’Arroseur Arrosé, but this argument depends entirely on what one believes counts as a “story,” as opposed to an incident or attraction.) To note only that Guy-Blaché was “the world’s first woman director,” then, is to do her somewhat of a disservice, given her other even more remarkable achievements. (She also, for example, was the first director in history to use synchronized sound in film, decades before The Jazz Singer.) Pamela Green’s long-overdue documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is therefore a little safe and cautious in calling Guy-Blaché only “one of” the earliest fiction filmmakers. Even so, Green’s compelling account performs an essential service in at last giving a remarkable and nearly forgotten figure from cinema history the feature-length documentary that she deserves. Be Natural (entitled after the advice Guy-Blaché always gave her actors) is wholly engrossing, and by turns surprising, illuminating, and moving.

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Rafiki (Dir. Wanuri Kahiu, 2018)


Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s marvelous, joyful Rafiki tells the story of two girls in love. It’s a story that has been told before, replete with obstacles en route to what we hope will be a happy ending, but two things set this film apart from the rest of the star-crossed crowd. One, the girls live in Kenya, where a colonial-era law marks out homosexuality as a criminal offense. Two, despite the seriousness of the dangers and challenges before our heroines, their story is wildly, vibrantly fun.

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Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, 1983)


I first saw this film in the mid-1980s, when I was a mildly alienated, slightly chicken-hearted New Waver who was curious about what more dangerous versions of myself were up to. I remember thinking at the time that Suburbia was really cool. Its depiction of rebellious street punks who make a home together in a squat spoke to my need to feel affiliated with something wild and counter-cultural without actually taking any real risks myself. And as someone who was disillusioned with suburbia, I appreciated the movie’s frank commentary on the hypocrisies of middle-class life. Revisiting the film today, I realize that I overlooked a great deal the first time around—not just its major themes about the blindness of youth but also the directness of its depictions of the casual racism, misogyny, and homophobia of some of its characters (and their society as a whole). Watching it now, it looks like much more than a stylish time capsule of a not-so-great period in American history (the Reagan years). It looks like an honest attempt to tell the truth about the way that young people experience a harsh world.

This is not to say that the film is always good. The performances of its mostly non-professional actors (actual street punks) are often wooden, the dialogue is stilted, and the attempts at humor mostly fail. Even so, the film is bold and completely unflinching in its attention to human ugliness, to the simultaneous vulnerability and cruelty of the young, and to the way that disaster so often strikes with little warning and for no good reason.

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Captain Marvel (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2019)


What is the source of Carol Danvers’ power? This is the question that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s excellent Captain Marvel asks, and the answers are various. The answer to the most literal form of the question is the typical sort of quasi-semi-demi-scientific explanation we’ve come to know and mostly love from the rest of the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—something about an accident involving an advanced energy source, etc. etc. Where the movie becomes deeply interesting, however, is in its many answers to the metaphorical versions of the question, many of which will resonate deeply with most of the women in the audience, and many men. The movie details a specifically female set of experiences, and not only in the ways one might expect from a movie about a woman who rises through the intermittently sexist ranks in the U.S. Air Force, eventually to fight alien bad guys. To say much more on this subject requires spoilers, which are plentiful after the page break here. So before you read on, go see this enormously entertaining and wonderfully hopeful movie.

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Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution (Yony Leyser, 2017)


Over the course of 83 brisk, entertaining minutes, Yony Leyser’s alternately raucous and thoughtful documentary traces the origins and rise of the queer punk rock scene. Like a punk song, much of the film’s force is in its economy, and like a punk song, it challenges the status quo, flouts taboos, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Leyser does a fine job recovering buried history in a way that’s fresh and illuminating, reminding us that settled narratives exist to be unsettled and that the voices of outsiders can often tell the truth the loudest.

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