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Review: ‘Potato Dreams of America’ plots a coming-of-age journey from Russia with lumps

A young boy and his mother sit on a bed in the movie "Potato Dreams of America."
Hersh Powers, left, and Sera Barbieri in the movie “Potato Dreams of America.”
(Vincent Pierce / “Potato Dreams of America”)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

“Potato Dreams of America” is a well-meaning mishmash of a movie memoir whose sometimes questionable narrative and visual choices one suspects — or at least hopes — are more intentional than artless. That is given writer-director-editor Wes Hurley’s seeming self-awareness about the ambitious story he’s so singularly trying to tell — his own — on a decidedly low budget.

The film begins in grim, 1980s-era Vladivostok, Russia, where preteen, American movie-loving Vasili (Hersh Powers), nicknamed Potato, is growing up with his devoted single mother, Lena (Sera Barbieri), and cynical grandma, Tamara (Lea DeLaria, in an inspired bit of casting). Their world is such an endless string of injustices, threats and constraints that even a hip Jesus (Jonathan Bennett in a bad wig), who shows up as the needy Potato’s imaginary friend, can’t do much to make things better. He certainly can’t quell the anxious boy’s naïve gay stirrings.

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This stagey and stylized first section has an amusing kind of Wes Anderson-meets-John Waters vibe. But it gives way to something clunkier and more on-the-nose when, by the 1990s, Potato and Lena move to Seattle after she connects with the much-older John (Dan Lauria) through an ad for mail-order brides.

Life in America is a step up for Potato and Lena (now played by Tyler Bocock and Marya Sea Kaminski), even if assimilation isn’t easy for closeted high schooler Potato, who’s eager to leave his heritage behind. Meanwhile, Lena, a doctor in her native land, finds that her lack of English limits her to working at a taco joint, though at least it’s a friendly one.

Unfortunately, the right-wing, God-fearing and short-fused John will prove as oppressive in some ways as the forces Potato and Lena fled in Russia, especially when he uncovers his stepson’s sexuality. It leads to one of those stranger-than-fiction twists that deserves a more finessed reveal and execution.

Though the performers rally throughout, the film, sweet as it is, fails to strike a manageable or engaging enough tone as it treads some overly familiar territory, jarringly plays around with the Russian characters’ accents (there’s a reason, but still) and becomes too earnest and gimmicky for its own good. Had Hurley played it all a bit, well, straighter from the start, “Potato” might have felt like a more completely baked journey.

'Potato Dreams of America'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

Playing: Starts Jan. 14, Laemmle Glendale


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