Gay filmmaker Wes Hurley’s inventive and captivating “Potato Dreams of America” (Darkstar), now available on Blu-ray, is the kind of movie another Wes (Anderson) would make if he was gay.
In the event that you missed this touching autobiographical feature when it played various film festivals (where it won a handful of awards), you now have a chance to see it.
“Based on true events,” the movie opens with a Quentin Crisp quote (always a good sign) before placing the viewer in Vladivostok, USSR, in 1985. There a young Potato aka Vassily sits on a couch with his grandmother Tamara (out actor Lea DeLaria, giving the best and most restrained performance of her career) watching his parents fighting. Through his vivid imagination, he transforms the fight into a dance on a stage.
At school, while posing for a class portrait with fellow students, Potato (Hersh Powers) refuses to wear the required red scarf of the uniform and proceeds to speak ill of the USSR to his teacher. At home, where his now-divorced prison doctor mother Lena (Seri Barbieri) lives with her boyfriend (whose best quality is that he has a color TV), we can see the special mother/son bond that is at the center of the story.
With the Berlin Wall down, and communism supposedly replaced by Russian Orthodox Christianity, Potato develops a personal relationship with Jesus (out actor Jonathan Bennett). Back at school, Potato is appalled by the anti-Semitism and homophobia of his classmates, especially since he realizes he is gay (which leads to him being bullied). As Lena’s boss tells her, Russia may have a new flag, but the people are the same.
Wanting a better future for herself and Potato, Lena applies to be a mail-order bride. Before you know, she and Potato are relocating to Seattle where she marries conservative Russian Orthodox convert John (Dan Lauria). Now a high school student, Potato (Tyler Bocock) tries hard to fit in, but teachers and classmates don’t make it easy. Meanwhile, Lena (Marya Sea Kaminski) does everything in her power to become a loving American wife. Even after she discovers the box containing photos of John’s previous Russian mail-order bride ex-wife whom he sent back to Russia.
Complicating matters is that Potato is coming into his queerness, a potentially explosive situation while he and Lena live under John’s roof. But he soon discovers he has nothing to worry about when it comes to Lena who is beyond accepting during the poignant coming-out scene. Lena, who has a lesbian boss, Cheryl (Sara Porkalob), at the restaurant where she works, is so supportive she makes a point of introducing Potato to her. Cheryl, in turn, introduces him to other queer people.
But the dreaded confrontation with John occurs. Just when it feels like all hope is lost, and he threatens to send Lena and Potato back to Russia, John experiences an essential moment of clarity, finally admitting to himself the truth about his own gender identity.
What follows is a combination of comedy, transgender embracement, sex, sex, and more sex. Hurley harvests his storytelling skills, resulting in a bumper crop of emotions, with laughter and tears in equal measure.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of eight books including the poetry chapbook Fear of Muses (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2022). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.