SXSW REVIEW: ‘Potato Dreams of America’ (2021) A Brave, Yet Uneven Portrait of The American Dream

Rating: 2 out of 5.

“Wes Hurley’s film is high on imagination, but possesses none of the verve to tie it all together.”

Wes Hurley has always possessed an eye for storytelling. As a kid, he framed his parent’s domestic squabbles as delicately choreographed ballets involving two people at odds with each other that coalesced into a melodramatic split. It only makes sense that Hurley’s life be a landmine of nearly absurd experiences from which his films can pull from. His 2017 documentary-short Little Potato focused on his life as a gay child in Russia and his arrival in America when his mother becomes a mail-order bride. The thirteen-minute short is filled with all the emotional gravity of living in, and escaping the Soviet Union, along with the pain and twists of concealing homosexuality from a conservative step-father and husband who holds within his hands power granted him by a flawed immigration system.

Not satisfied to relegate such a layered story to a mere short film, Hurley revisits it in Potato Dreams of America, his feature-length adaptation of the experience which premiered at the same festival his short film did four years ago. It is chock full with all the same emotional gravity, pains, and twists of the short; Hurley circumvents all the stuffy conventions of an autobiographical film, opting instead for a meta, mostly satirical take on a story that Little Potato already told in comprehensive detail. It stars Tyler Bocock as Potato (and Hersh Powers as a younger version of the character), Hurley’s thinly-veiled stand-in for himself, a kid who escapes the fallen Soviet Union and moves to the United States when his mother (Sera Barbieri) marries an older man from Seattle. The film reveals itself to be a tender take on the American dream, filtered through the American films that propagate a utopic version of the country. It is ingrained with a slowly fading hope for a country that turns out isn’t as rosy as the movies make it seem. But when the discovery of his sexuality is threatened, he and his mother must decide whether their new found freedom is worth their happiness. It even features Mean Girls’ alum Jonathan Bennett as an imaginary Jesus and Rizo in an unexpected musical number – an intriguing combination of comic effects that grab you from the film’s opening moments.

All of this is why it proves especially anticlimactic when Hurley’s hand doesn’t prove as skilled as his eye is inspired. Potato Dreams of America is a surreal and cartoonish dramedy that lacks the vitality to puzzle it’s pieces together, even when those pieces are rich in plot and stylistically interesting. A lot of the film is stifled by how little Hurley’s ambitious story is matched by a script that backs away from truly challenging its subject matter in ways that occasionally slip through the cracks of the oft trite comedy.

At the film’s core, Potato’s battle with his sexuality in a deeply conservative and tyrannical household provides emotionally reverberating stakes for a young man whose goal is to simply stay alive and give his mom the happiness he believes she deserves. Over the course of the film, he frequents a Blockbuster where he rents – over a hundred times – the Gregg Araki film The Living End, both in a bid to quench and arouse his burgeoning desire. The concept of cinema as a space for self-identification is a theme complex and universal enough to be relatable, and the game of secrecy heightens the effect. But all that is petered out by inconsequential segues into a never-explored romantic relationship with a girl in Potato’s class and a very limited look into his repression that very clearly burns him from the inside out. Whether the desired effect was to keep the film’s tone light or runtime brief doesn’t become apparent, but both leave the film as though it were a body with no legs. Whereas Hurley’s documentary short melded the overt absurdity of the story and the more heart-wrenching bits together into a simple beat with a gasp-inducing twist, the feature-length adaptation struggles with maintaining the delicate balance required to tie it all together.

In the end, this twist – while still providing a much needed surprise to jolt the film into a near liveliness – feels wry and thoroughly unearned. There’s an unevenness that permeates the rest of the film after; Potato Dreams of America shakes the comedy, but lacks the depth to support the sudden, yet unfounded dramatic turn. But one has to commend Hurley for the courage to bear his heart into a film so raw, even when the synergy between plot and execution is flat and prosaic. Potato Dreams of America is at its best when it doesn’t try too hard to prod any deeper into the story; it is funny where it needs to be. But, just like the version of America Potato watches on the screen of his new colored TV, it simply does not possess the verve to be as incisive as it could be.

Director: Wes Hurley

Producer: Mischa Jakupcak, Wes Hurley

Cast: Tyler Bocock, Hersh Powers, Marya Sea Kaminski, Sera Barbieri, Lea DeLaria, Jonathan Bennett