Director/writer David Bezmozgis based his film Natasha on Natasha and Other Stories which he wrote 10 years ago, and which reviewers noted as “exceptional” and “scary good.” Transferring exceptional writing into exceptional filmmaking is never easy. It requires a visual sensitivity in the translation and Bezmozgis doesn’t quite execute the trenchant tone of his written work in Natasha which, at times, falls cinematically flat.
Themes about assimilation, retaining the best of one’s immigrant cultural mores, paternalism, sexual exploitation and alienation are homogenized. Though their powerful impact is diminished, the film must be credited in revealing these tropes. And it is a stand out in its focus on the vicissitudes of youth and the cultural generation gap that teenagers must negotiate as they mature. A principal theme Bezmozgis elucidates is not new: through his protagonist Mark Berman, he shows that individuals who are forced to carve out a path to succeed in a disparate culture, must sacrifice their past and obviate their roots to fit in. So it is with Mark, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, who appears more Canadian than Russian when we are introduced to him.
At its foundation, the film is a coming of age tale about suburban teenager Mark (Alex Ozerov). Mark straddles both Canadian and Russian cultures and mores; he finds both insubstantial and insufficient for his own complex and incomprehensible life which is in “limbo.” Mark relieves his lackluster, purposeless summer days by smoking pot, hanging with friends and masturbating to online porn. When his parents suggest he get a job, he is manifestly uninterested. He has everything he needs, and he would rather pursue adventure in dealing pot for cash, than do something meaningful.
The routine of suburbia stultifies him until his uncle’s immigrant wife from Moscow, brings “cousin” Natasha (Sasha K. Gordon), her teenage daughter, for a family get-together. When Mark’s mom suggests he entertain her, and show Natasha around to get her acquainted with the unfamiliar Toronto scene, initially, Mark responds as he does with everything else. Ennui. But as they get to know one another, Mark discovers Natasha’s impulses-she is fourteen going on twenty-five and is more sexually knowledgeable and sensually savvy than he is.
Ironies abound. In the privacy of Mark’s well-appointed bedroom, symbolic of his vapid lifestyle, Natasha uncovers her illicit past in Moscow and her mother’s former occupation. Mark and Natasha become physically involved and the world of love and lust opens up to Mark, well controlled by Natasha for this is what she knows and understands. It is second nature to her. But because she is forthcoming and honest about hers and her mother’s past, her mother’s relationship with Mark’s uncle, and how she feels about present circumstances, Mark is drawn in and doesn’t see Natasha’s surreptitious intentions.
Because of Natasha’s revelations and his intimacy with her, Mark is between a rock and a hard place. He cannot confide in his parents, who are oblivious, overworked and concerned about “adult” issues, but he needs counsel beyond his readings of Nietzsche because he is out of his emotional depth with Natasha. When both families visit each other, the interactions are predicated upon ego and artifice; nothing is what Mark and Natasha know it to be. Marks’ parents and Mark’s uncle are “in the dark.” Only the teenagers understand the depth of the cultural and generational divide, yet they are unable to articulate it so that anyone would listen. There is misunderstanding, stereotyping, categorizing. The divide is everpresent. And though it is not acknowledged and is discounted as the adults discuss Arab-Israeli conflicts and larger world issues far removed from their own personal dramas, it is that divide that contributes to their general unease, alienation and inner dislocation from each other. The divide is what makes their lives incomplete and unfulfilled.
The patina that all is satisfactory in a country that offers an abundance of material well-being, has been rubbed off by Natasha’s candidness. A useless appendage, she is unhappy living with her mother and Mark’s uncle. Her former life in Moscow has reduced her to an object without identity or importance except for her gender. The filmmaker reveals she is even more lost than Mark because she is unaware of the damage and abuse she experienced in a paternalistic, sexually exploitive culture which she still believes made her mature and “cool.” Because of her questionable past, her present circumstances living with her mother and stepfather are untenable. It is an irony that her persuasive allurements go a long way to convince Mark that she is in the right and has found herself, though the opposite is in fact true; she is as desperate, alone and alienated as Mark is.
The direction their relationship moves toward is inevitable; Bezmozgis’ development of it is engaging. Like any teenage story of intimacy, it is poignant. But with the issues and themes Bezmozgis throws into the mix, we are continually intrigued. How their story and subsequent events evolve is credible though not completely surprising. Whether they eventually end up together is a matter of perspective.
The stark and ironic view of the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience is the inferred centerpiece of Natasha. Unfortunately, Bezmozgis’ visual range never moves much past typical shots of neat suburban streets and house/apartment interiors. There is a long introduction of Mark on his bike in a meditative repose as he listens to music and pedals down streets with trees, lawns and rows of ordinary houses. There are the seminal backyards and hackneyed interiors which reflect the mundanity of the Toronto life into which the Berman family attempts to assimilate. These scenes and Mark’s family conversations over dinner capture the Berman’s future hopes which appear lackluster and which suggest why the teenagers seek the forbidden relationship and untoward sexual behavior in Mark’s room.
Amidst the subtle, winding threads of his characters living a droll existence, Bezmogzis thrusts subtle cultural clashes with the language of the people in his film. Through language, after all, one is able to retain one’s defining characteristics. The Bermans speak Russian at home in an intimate, closed environment. Mark speaks English sometimes at home to annoy his parents. Primarily, he uses English with friends, at work, in school etc., in a public context. He validates his cultural assimilation through English. However, for his parents and uncle, the Russian language is the only vital exigency of their former life that still has an indelible connection to their present muted cultural context. For Mark Russian serves no real purpose and is an obstacle.
Bezmogzis’ characterizations show that until one is able to see and understand one’s inner life, until one is able to make oneself purposeful, teenagers like Mark and Natasha will stumble through circumstances that others have created for them. Though they attempt to make things better, in Natasha Bezmogzis foreshadows the betterment will be a long time coming.