The Movie Waffler SXSW 2021 Review - POTATO DREAMS OF AMERICA | The Movie Waffler


Potato Dreams of America review
A gay boy growing up in the dying days of the USSR has his life upended when his mail-order bride mother moves the two of them to America.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Wes Hurley

Starring: Hersh Powers, Tyler Bocock, Jonathan Bennett, Sera Barbieri, Marya Sea Kaminski, Dan Lauria

Potato Dreams of America poster

At its core, Potato Dreams of America is like many other coming-of-age movies you know. It centres on a kid growing up in a dysfunctional household who struggles with finding his identity, both strands of life then compounded by new circumstances that enter in parallel to adolescence. But writer-director Wes Hurley’s unique perspective and combination of influences are fresh, making his deeply personal film feel like something altogether new.

Potato Dreams of America review

The filmmaker brings his lived-in experiences to life in this comedically dramatised rendition of his youth, full of ticklish details like his awkward teenage counterpart (played as a boy by Hersh Powers and as a high schooler by Tyler Bocock) zipped up in a black hoodie renting a VHS of Gregg Araki’s The Living End from a self-indulgent video clerk. But before he’s in America watching New Queer classics, the young Vasili Naumenko (the director’s actual birth name), nicknamed Potato, is raised in the traditional Soviet way of life in the decaying years of the USSR.

Just like the Nazi beliefs gave Jojo Rabbit an imagination of Hitler, the Russian Orthodox ideal manifests an invisible friend for Potato in the form of a chill Jesus (Jonathan Bennett), who just kinda wants to kick back and watch cable films. The sight of an athletic Van Damme serves as a burgeoning of Potato’s homosexuality, as he subsequently freaks out about what he’s experiencing. In the meantime, his mail-order bride mother is invited to the States by a gentleman named John (Dan Lauria), an Archie Bunker-type who presents his own set of challenges for the Naumenkos.

Potato Dreams of America review

With his whimsical humour, love for symmetry and attention to costuming detail, it’s easy to credit Wes Anderson for Hurley’s formal choices. But Anderson could have never told this story. It has a cultural specificity in its picturesque rendition of the USSR and how it clashes with the looser, spaciousness of the US without painting one as better than the other. It’s a complicated story of migration that could only be related to us by an actual migrant who grew up in the '90s. More so a queer migrant, as it is full of distinctive moments of self-discovery.

The two women who occupy the role of Potato’s mother Lena, Sera Barbieri and Marya Sea Kaminski, are the standouts as far as acting goes, fully realising the complex role of a prison doctor turned mail-order bride who navigates through two different family units, within two different socio-political spheres, with a sheer optimism, only wanting the best for her beloved son. The beautifully written role is a lovely tribute from a son to his mother. Aiding the performances is the commitment to period detail which includes a soft, colourful '90s palette, throwing us back to a time when filmmakers weren’t so obsessed with being dark and gritty.

Potato Dreams of America review

Potato Dreams of America is something of a cinematic kaleidoscope. In addition to the intertextual engagement with movies and an Anderson-esque visual style, Hurley features sequences dedicated to pop musicals and the silent film era. For somebody who was so influenced by films growing up, it felt inevitable that he was going to turn his life into a movie.

Potato Dreams of America plays online at SXSW from March 16th to 21st.

2021 movie reviews