The American dream is a concept that doesn’t always live up to its glorious reputation. Those who grow up elsewhere longing for the promise American has to offer rarely have the means necessary to be able to partake in that luxurious lifestyle, and if they do make it to the fabled country, their existence won’t be nearly as glamorous or comfortable as what they’ve seen in movies. Even if wealth and prosperity aren’t immediately available, there can be a tremendous change of pace and shift in mindset that help someone feel truly liberated, a notion humorously explored in the SXSW narrative feature Potato Dreams of America.
This is the autobiographical story of writer-director Wes Hurley, who was born in the Soviet Union and told his mother that he was gay at the age of sixteen. This fantastical cinematic adaptation takes considerable liberties with reality, imagining that everyone in Russia speaks English and that, like Jojo Rabbit, Potato talks to his own famous friend who lives in his head – in this case, Jesus Christ (Jonathan Bennett). While Potato (Hersh Powers) compares his life to Russian movies, Jesus, who coaches him through such traumatizing experiences as his first time masturbating, encourages him instead to believe in American movies and the positivity and hope they radiate.
Everything changes for Potato (Tyler Bocock) when he comes to Seattle with his mother Lena (Marya Sea Kaminski), who is the mail-order bride purchased by John (Dan Lauria). Being in America opens up Potato’s world in an incredible way, allowing him to fully explore himself and to realize that the biology book from his childhood resembles the toxic, entirely fictional education that Borat’s daughter received in another recent cinematic send-up of repressive Soviet culture. It’s an eye-opening experience for this nervous protagonist, one audiences get to watch in all its charming and comedic goodness.
There is something about the construction of this film and the way it animates its narrative that feels warm and familiar, capturing the energy of so many dark, miserable childhoods that only with time and upon intense reflection seem ripe for a lighthearted retelling. This is a film that’s having fun, mocking the closemindedness and rampant hatred expressed by its target population in an unforgiving way, and employing dramatic music cues when Potato’s sardonic grandmother compares bullies in school to the far greater threat of Potato’s unlikely survival once he is drafted to the army. Casting comedian Lea DeLaria in that role is indicative of how Hurley feels about his subject matter and that enough distance from these surely traumatizing moments has enabled him to laugh at everything that happened to him.
The cast, which includes different actors as Potato and Lena in Russia and then in America, is a delight, and they help make this a rich and enjoyable pleasure. The film does go through an unexpected shift in tone with a plot twist in its third act and the beginning of Potato’s full embracing of his sexual identity as he gets older, but it serves to complement a buoyant and engaging start by, as with life, evolving as circumstances change and the world looks a little different than it did before. Expanding his own documentary short film, Little Potato, that premiered at SXSW in 2017, Hurley demonstrates a penchant for involving storytelling and an appreciation for taking whatever life gives you and turning it into comedy.
Potato Dreams of America made its World Premiere at SXSW Online 2021 on Tuesday, March 16th.