Writer-director Wes Hurley’s Potato Dreams of America, which received its world premiere at SXSW Online 2021, is the inventively told autobiopic of a gay Russian immigrant who falls in love with America as a child through catching pirate television broadcasts of 80s movies as the Iron Curtain falls and emigrates to Seattle when his mother gets a marriage proposal from an American Christian fundamentalist she’s never met. Hurley has previously explored his story on film with the documentary short Little Potato, featuring himself and his mother, which won the Grand Jury Award at SXSW in 2017, and the immersive VR film Potato Dreams, which also played this year’s SXSW.
Potato Dreams of America opens in a stylized late 1980s Vladivostok on what’s clearly a set—with worldbuilding and a quirky dark comic tone reminiscent of John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch—where we meet the adorable young Potato (a delightful Hersh Powers) who escapes the reality of his mother Lena (Sera Barbieri) being beaten by his father by pretending the couple are dancing on their black and white television screen.
Potato and his mother manage to escape the abusive relationship, much to the disapproval of Lena’s stern mother Tamara (a wonderful Lea DeLaria) who believes any man is better than no man at all. Tamara secures a grim job for her daughter as a doctor in a prison where she must certify the deaths of inmates and ignore any evidence of suspicious circumstances, or face the consequences. Meanwhile Potato begins to question communism out loud, and is struggling to cope with the guilt he feels when he discovers masturbation and realizes that he is gay.
Surrounded by homophobia at school, and initially unable to share how he is feeling with his mother, luckily Potato has his own personal Jesus (Jonathan Bennett) to talk to (Jojo Rabbit style) about his concerns, leading to a memorable moment involving a scantily clad Jean-Claude van Damme, Christ and a cum rag.
When mother and son eventually move to Seattle the visual, and aural, language of the film shift to a more naturalistic style, while the accents switch from American to Russian, with Marya Sea Kaminski taking on the role of the American Dream version of Lena and Tyler Bocock playing the now teenage Potato as he starts at a US high school. Lena’s unpredictable and rather menacing new husband John (Dan Lauria) is disappointed that she is less strictly religious than he’d hoped, and she lives in constant fear of saying the wrong thing, with the threat of being sent back to Russia hanging over her. There’s a fish-out-of-water aspect to the storytelling once they arrive in the US, as everything is different from what they were used to in Russia, and not quite the America that they’d encountered in the movies they were so enthralled by. As the film plays with American movie conventions, it’s refreshing to have immigrant characters front and centre, with both Kaminski and Bocock bringing vulnerability, nuance, and humour to their portrayals.
Speaking of movies, at the local video store Potato is immediately intrigued by the VHS cover of Gregg Araki’s The Living End. Once he plucks up the courage to hire it, he watches it obsessively. As he becomes more comfortable with his sexuality there’s a fantastically fun, and hot, sequence of him gaining sexual experience featuring a string of handsome men (including Seattle’s own comic stripper Woody Schticks). There’s also a beautiful queer chosen family in Seattle waiting to embrace Potato and his mother.
As the film progresses, some elements of the plot might seem a little farfetched were it not based on the filmmaker’s real life, and although it occasionally feels like there are a few too many ideas here for one movie, the strong emotional thread and engaging performances ensure the film never loses its distinctive brand of charm. It’s a queer immigrant tale made all the more touching by its roots in reality that I know I’ll enjoy revisiting, and I can imagine some young LGBTQ+ folks who are discovering themselves coming across it and watching it as many times as Potato returned Araki’s movie.
By James Kleinmann
Potato Dreams of America received its world premiere at SXSW Online 2021.