Potato Dreams of America is a dark comedy, but don’t let the label fool you: Writer-director Wes Hurley’s semi-autobiographical story is a fundamentally sweet and endlessly creative LGBTQ+ fable about finding your place in multiple worlds that don’t seem to want you. It doesn’t shy away from complicated themes but doesn’t devote outsized focus to tragedy and pain, either, which remains a common pratfall in films about gay youth. It’s a bright, thoughtful, funny and, most of all surprising, film.
Potato (Hersh Powers) is a young boy growing up during the late 1980s in Vladivostok, a city in the Russian Far East. It’s a cold, dreary place to live, particularly under the Soviet yoke. His mother, Lena (Sera Barbieri), is a fiercely independent woman who bristles at men who tell her how to live — hence her perpetual single status and her frustrations at her work in a Russian prison, where her skills as a doctor are tested each day when the “mysterious ailments” of prisoners are administratively undiagnosable. Lena and Potato are inseparable.
What Lena doesn’t know, and what Potato is only starting to realize, is that he is gay. The first sign of his sexuality is when his buddies find a nude magazine in the gutter and he doesn’t feel anything. The next is when he starts to feel things while watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Being gay in Soviet Russia simply isn’t a thing, and Potato represses it as best he can. Soon, though, his friends start to openly speak of beating up gay men and other minorities. Potato himself ends up beaten several times. His only escape is American movies, which he and his mother watch voraciously on pirate television stations broadcast over the Pacific.
Traveling to America is the dream. In America, Potato believes he can be anyone he wants to be.
The first act of Potato Dreams of America plays like something of a lower-budget but no less engrossing version of Jojo Rabbit. His imaginary friend is an effeminate Jesus Christ, standing in for the father figures from whom Lena has largely saved him. There’s a lot of adorable interaction between young Potato and his imaginary Christ-father, who of course knows nothing more than the boy himself. “Young, gay Russian boy learning to become himself with the help of imaginary Jesus” is a strong pitch, and this is the best section of the film.
Soon, though, Lena signs up to become a mail-order bride, and the two move to America to live with John (Dan Lauria), a devout Christian conservative whose marital expectations don’t quite mesh with the independent Lena and her closeted, imaginative son.
The latter portion of Potato is a somewhat more straightforward coming-of-age / coming-out story, dropping a lot of the fascinating set design and surreal visual storytelling in favor of a more naturalistic approach to the troubled experiences of an older Potato (Tyler Bocock) in his new home. He finds it hard to make new friends, as the homophobia in America is no less prevalent, and his accent and language create a new barrier in school. He longs to express himself and come out of the closet but doesn’t see an easy avenue to do so, particularly under John’s oppressive gaze. The older Lena (Marya Sea Kaminski) has her own trouble in John’s household as she takes a job washing dishes to help their family finances, a far cry from her specialties as a doctor.
Although not quite as imaginative, there are twists and turns during this era of Potato’s life, too, that thankfully avoid a lot of tropes in favor of something more open and surprising. Although he seems to be a walking stereotype, John reveals secrets in his own past and is never shown to be outright physically abusive or monstrous — although the film smartly uses expectations set by a whole genre of coming-out films to create tension in their marriage. I’m very glad it goes in a much more life-affirming direction.
I was a little disappointed when the film switched gears and dropped much of the style that made its first act such a surprise. It’s a big switch, and it may catch some audiences off-guard. However, as a whole, the switch works narratively (both in the big picture and within the story itself). This isn’t just Jojo Rabbit with another setting and different themes, and in the end, it’s better for it. Hurley has created a thoughtful story about the difficulty of finding where you belong that maintains fun energy while tackling difficult emotions. I hope it finds the audience it deserves.