David Bezmozgis’ harrowingly matter-of-fact coming-of-age saga, Natasha, depicts a Toronto’s teen’s slow-motion fall from the cliffs of fantasy onto the sharp rocks of reality. Beautifully adapted from the title tale of Bezmozgis’s acclaimed 2004 collection of interlinked, autobiographical short stories about a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants, the movie is both distanced and desperate, restrained and sordid.
It will be shown three times during the Washington Jewish Film Festival.
Mark (a terrific Alex Ozerov), who’s 16, is going through the motions of an undemanding summer, innocuously bicycling the deserted streets of his luxuriant suburb delivering weed for a dealer just a few years older than himself. He’s the quintessential teenager: Half-listening to the dreamy, angsty pop songs on his earbuds, half-reading the books of philosophy and literature that line his shelves, half-watching the Internet porn that’s the sole apparent function of his laptop and half-listening to his parents’ chitchat and his father’s motivational cross-examinations.
Mark speaks Russian with his parents at home and English in public, and his bilingualism feeds a false notion of autonomy as well as the illusory sense that his illicit pursuits are his own secret domain. Although he’s plainly a good kid at heart and incapable of intentional cruelty, he requires pursuits that aren’t provided or approved by Mom and Dad.
So Mark is less than thrilled when they assign him the obligation of acclimating 14-year-old Natasha, the daughter of his uncle’s newly immigrated wife, to Canada. Mark and Natasha are both Russian yet they’re from different planets — planets that, for dissimilar reasons, adopt a tight orbit around each other.
While the clandestine relationship between Mark and Natasha (disarmingly and disturbingly played by Sasha K. Gordon with a veneer of naiveté that masks a chilling ruthlessness) drives the plot, Bezmozgis is acutely interested in upending and undermining certain perceptions of immigrants, and the presumably wonderful First World lives that await them.
As a fully assimilated Canadian, Mark condescendingly adopts the role of Natasha’s guide. And as the jaded owner of most of the average thinking-person’s material possessions, he thinks he has a comfort level and status that Natasha (or anyone else) aspires to.
The film has already painted Mark’s spoiled suburban existence as something of a decadent bore. His parents presumably left Russia to give him a safer, more secure life with better opportunities, but instead of a young man driven to maximize his potential he’s a nonproductive, underachieving slug.
Natasha, we come to learn, has had to grow up much faster than Mark, and has a clearer fix on where she wants to go and how to get there. Her street smarts — and female figure — easily trump Mark’s book smarts.
Natasha offers some uncomfortable truths about the lack of power of vulnerable women, and the tools and techniques they employ to balance the scales. The movie is infused with a nasty undercurrent of exploitation, from the mysterious circumstances culminating in the rapid wedding of Mark’s uncle and Natasha’s mother, to Natasha’s too-young experiences in Russia, to the events that reveal Mark’s inexperience and immaturity to himself.
By that point, the earbuds have slipped from Mark’s ears (a contemporary metaphor for scales dropping from his eyes). Thrust face-to-face with the empty artifice of his constructed existence, he is stunned and pathetic.
Right now, at his age, it feels like the end of the world. The good news, which Mark won’t be able to appreciate until some weeks (or months) after the credits have rolled, is that he has his whole life ahead of him.
The Washington Jewish Film Festival will screen Natasha Feb. 28 at 5 p.m. at West End Cinema, March 3 at 8:30 p.m. at Bethesda Row Cinema, and March 5 at 6:15 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre. For information, see wjff.org
Michael Fox is a film critic based in San Francisco.