In one particularly affecting scene from David Bezmozgis’ Natasha, the film the Canadian author and filmmaker adapted from the title short story of his acclaimed first collection, the teenaged protagonist Mark is reading aloud excerpts from Nietzsche to his 14-year-old step-cousin Natasha, newly arrived from Moscow.
After listening contemplatively to several passages, Natasha observes, “So he writes things that everyone already knows.”
“Kind of,” Mark replies. “But you only know them when you read them.”
The statement encapsulates the poignancy at the heart of the film, which Bezmozgis wrote and directed, and which opens this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 5.
The universe of 16-year-old Mark (played by Alex Ozerov)’s placid Toronto suburb is rattled when the troubled daughter of his uncle’s new wife is temporarily placed under his charge.
But it’s only when he’s forced to face certain irrevocable truths about Natasha (played by Sasha K. Gordon), his family and himself that it seems they were there to be understood all along.
Mark, like Bezmozgis, was born in Latvia to Jewish parents and raised in Toronto, where his family settled when he was a young child.
The cultural rift between Mark and his parents, as well as the extended Russian family members of their generation, is starkly highlighted. Mark responds in English when they speak to him in Russian and challenges their notion that he should spend the summer working, as they’re anxious that their children “have it too easy” in Canada.
Rather than toil at the call-centre job his uncle has arranged for him, Mark forges ahead with his comfortable routine of riding his bike, delivering pot for his older neighbour – it pays more or less the same as a thankless summer job would, he reasons – reading philosophy in his basement-turned bedroom and watching porn.
In addition to underscoring the particular strains of the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience and the understated pleasures of a lazy suburban summer, Bezmozgis deftly exposes some of the universal ironies of the parent-child dynamic.
The various parents in the film berate their adolescent children for being selfish, idle and difficult, but their claims are juxtaposed by revelations of their own foibles and in some cases, corruption.
Mark’s mother’s almost childlike innocence, with her refusal to see the drama unfolding before her, throws into sharp relief Mark’s rather dramatic coming of age. Meanwhile, Natasha’s mother, the new wife of Mark’s uncle, is crafty and duplicitous, while the husband she dupes is perhaps less a victim than he initially seems to be.
Natasha, whose own innocence it seems has long ago been lost, uses the grim lessons she’s learned from growing up in a dysfunctional home in Russia – a country about which she says blandly, “It’s s–t, but people enjoy themselves” – to survive in the only way she knows how.
The cynical reality of her situation as a child who comes to understand that sexuality is her most valued currency is balanced by the surprising sweetness of the romance she and Mark enter into.
Indeed, it is in portraying the budding relationship between them that Bezmozgis triumphs.
The adult characters in the film are decidedly weaker than their adolescent counterparts, with their dialogue sometimes veering toward being heavy-handed. Bezmozgis is perhaps reaching here by using them to give viewers background narrative that’s woven so gracefully into the book.
The teenage characters in the film, however, are beautifully rendered, at once capturing the shy watchfulness of those on the brink of adulthood and the joyous freedom of newfound independence.
Both Ozerov and Gordon are excellent as Mark and Natasha, playing their roles with an effortless intensity that makes the film a pleasure to watch.
Natasha opens the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which runs May 5 to 15.
Visit tjff.com for a full schedule and ticket information.