Dir. David Bezmozgis
Starring: Alex Ozerov, Sasha K. Gordon, Aidan Shipley, Deanna Dezmari
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Given the ongoing richness of the immigrant experience in Canada, a country with an official policy of multiculturalism, it's so important for our cultural industries to tell these stories and reflect our mosaic as it shifts across time. Natasha, written and directed by Canadian filmmaker David Bezmozgis is an especially layered, intelligent and evocative portrait of immigrant life in Canada.
To think of the utter waste of Canadian taxpayer dollars on a mind-numbingly mainstream and mediocre international co-production like Brooklyn (uh, a period piece about an Irish colleen finding romance in post-war New York) leaves a bitter taste, especially considering all the great stories to be told by talented filmmakers in Canada. Thankfully, the bilious sapidity forced upon our country's cultural palate by the sickeningly twee Brooklyn is replaced very nicely with the exquisite taste of Natasha.
Based on an original story by Bezmozgis, he has skillfully adapted it from a 90s setting to the contemporary northern suburbs of Toronto. Using the rich backdrop of the Eastern European (primarily Russian) Jewish community, we follow the story of handsome 16-year-old Mark (Alex Ozerov) as he whiles away his summer days amidst the relatively affluent greenery of the pleasantly sleepy enclave of wide streets, big garages and the seemingly endless rows of tastefully-designed (though unexceptional in their very modernity) homes.
Into this world comes the beautiful 14-year-old Natasha (Sasha K. Gordon). She is the daughter of a recent middle-aged immigrant from Moscow who will be marrying Mark's nebbishy Uncle. Family is family, though and Natasha will be Mark's cousin, if only by marriage. As such, he's recruited to be a tour guide to this seemingly shy young girl who speaks only Russian. She's not shy for long, though - at least not in Mark's presence.
It seems inevitable that they should fall for each other, but as the film progresses, deep secrets of Natasha's life in Russia are parcelled out and several family conflicts begin to rear their ugly heads to threaten the relationship. What's especially telling is the differences between the "new" immigrants (Natasha's Mother) and those who've had time to establish themselves in the "New World" (Mark's family). These contrasts are brilliantly juggled throughout the film since it is the differences which tend to provide the greatest conflict, but they do so in tandem with "old world" values which tend to creep into the proceedings.
The film is gorgeously written, most notably in terms of charting its narrative and rich characters in ways you never expect. Its very surface simplicity is what yields so many layers of complexity, humanity and rich, believable surprises. The film's subplots involving Mark's family and his friend, an amiable wealthy young man with a not-so straight-up interior, are also woven perfectly into the fabric of the story in ways that always surprise us.
There is, ultimately, no denying that Natasha is a love story within a coming-of-age tale, but in spite of its occasional forays into the familiar (that come with the territory of the genre) and the delightful gymnastics of youthful romance, Bezmozgis delivers a film that is as bitter as it is sweet. Bittersweet qualities in this genre can also be a dime a dozen, but happily the film shies away from the all the aforementioned tried and true elements by etching story beats that twist the familiar, all in ways closer to life itself.
As well, the movie is blessed with a stylistic adherence to letting drama play out naturally and the picture succeeds because of the filmmaker's very deft approach to neorealism.
Visually, Bezmozgis seeks simple, but dramatically resonant shots. With expert cinematography by Guy Godfree and first-rate production design elements (in particular the nice, subtle touches in the interior set dressing) and in addition to the very real locations, Bezmozgis allows his drama to play out with flourishes that are always discriminating. What's nice, and not unlike so many of Vittorio De Sica's masterful visual approaches, is that the film blends very classical shot structures with those that are as equally naturalistic (especially inherent in Godfree's lighting).
As a director with far more experience than this sophomore effort implies, Bezmozgis blocks the action of his cast so that they seem genuinely rooted in the place and time they occupy and the occasional plumes of breathtaking visuals occur in terms of both camera and the gorgeously paced and narratively effective editing by Michelle Szemberg. Like the best neorealism, we always feel like we're in a real place and time with equally real people (thanks also to a perfect cast), but, when dramatically necessary, our filmmaker sneaks a delicious frisson into the film to tantalize us and move us forward.
Bezmozgis achieves this by investing his imagery with several important visual signposts which have the effect of working on us inconspicuously - rooted naturally in setting and, most saliently, in the dramatic language of the film. Perhaps the most glorious example of this is the basement window of Mark's home, one which looks into his living quarters and reflects the light of day (or night) as the story proceeds. It's so evocative that it eventually becomes a kind of deliriously romantic image via Mark's point of view in the basement. When Bezmozgis reveals this point of view in reverse, the effect is heartbreaking.
Darkness is what ultimately wends its way through this moving, romantic tale. It makes the light seem brighter when it needs to be, but on occasion the light of day - in both exterior and interior settings - take on a portent which ultimately delivers on a classical coming-of-age story that hurts as much as it offers hope.
The hurt, is familiar - not familiar in terms of the filmmaking, but in the haunting and decidedly unidealistic experiences felt by the film's characters that we, as an audience, recognize in our own experience.
This, of course, is what makes terrific pictures. Natasha is one of them.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars
Natasha is the opening night film of the 2016 Toronto Jewish Film Festival and opens theatrically May 6, 2016 in Canada via Mongrel Media.