A Summer of Love and All its Discontentsby Michael Fox January 29, 2016
David Bezmozgis’ matter-of-fact coming-of-age saga, “Natasha,” depicts a Toronto teen’s slow-motion fall from the cliffs of fantasy onto the sharp rocks of reality, in harrowing detail. Beautifully adapted from the title tale of Bezmozgis’s acclaimed 2004 collection of interlinked, autobiographical short stories about a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants, the movie is both distanced and desperate, restrained and sordid.
Sixteen-year-old Mark (a terrific Alex Ozerov) is going through the motions of an undemanding summer, innocuously bicycling the deserted streets of his luxuriant suburb delivering weed for a dealer just a few years older than himself. He’s the quintessential teenager: Half-listening to the dreamy, angsty pop songs on in his earbuds, half-reading the books of philosophy and literature that line his shelves, half-watching the Internet porn that’s the sole apparent function of his laptop and half-listening to his parents’ chitchat and his father’s motivational cross-examinations.
Mark speaks Russian with his parents at home and English in public, and his bilingualism feeds a false notion of autonomy as well as the illusory sense that his illicit pursuits are his own secret domain. Although he’s plainly a good kid at heart, and incapable of intentional cruelty, he requires pursuits that aren’t provided or approved by Mom and Dad.
So Mark is less than thrilled when they assign him the obligation of acclimating 14-year-old Natasha, the daughter of his uncle’s newly immigrated wife, to Canada. Mark and Natasha are both Russian yet they’re from different planets – planets that, for dissimilar reasons, adopt a tight orbit around each other.
While the clandestine relationship between Mark and Natasha (disarmingly and disturbingly played by Sasha K. Gordon with a veneer of naiveté that masks a chilling ruthlessness) drives the plot, Bezmozgis is acutely interested in upending and undermining certain perceptions of immigrants, and the presumably wonderful First World lives that await them.
As a fully assimilated Canadian, Mark adopts the role of Natasha’s guide, with condescention and displeasure. He thinks he has a comfort level and status that Natasha (or anyone else) aspires to, and he isn’t afraid to let her know it.
At this point, the film has already painted Mark’s spoiled suburban existence as something of a decadent bore. His parents presumably left Russia to give him a safer, more secure life with better opportunities, but instead of a young man driven to maximize his potential he’s a nonproductive, underachieving slug.
Natasha, we come to learn, has had to grow up much faster than Mark, and has a clearer fix on where she wants to go and how to get there. Her street smarts – and female figure – easily trump Mark’s book smarts.
“Natasha” offers some uncomfortable truths about the lack of power of vulnerable women, and the tools and techniques they employ to balance the scales. The movie is infused with a nasty undercurrent of exploitation, from the mysterious circumstances culminating in the rapid wedding of Mark’s uncle and Natasha’s mother, to Natasha’s too-young experiences in Russia, to the events that reveal Mark’s inexperience and immaturity to himself.
By this next point, the earbuds have slipped from Mark’s ears (a contemporary metaphor for scales dropping from his eyes). Thrust face-to-face with the empty artifice of his constructed existence, he is stunned and pathetic.
Right now, at his age, the trauma makes him feel like he’s reached the end of the world. The good news, which Mark won’t be able to appreciate until some weeks after the credits have rolled, is that he has his whole life ahead of him.