Sasha K. Gordon in the title role of Natasha written and directed by David Bezmozgis. (Credit: Vortex Pictures)

Film Review: Natasha

A Summer that resets a Boy’s Life

By Sandoval Romero

An indie film is weaving its way through the San Francisco Bay Area with one showing remaining - in the North Bay at the Smith Rafael Film Center. One of the gems of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, two generations of Russian immigrants clash when their teenage children are thrust together and the forbidden unfolds. Natasha by David Bezmozgis is one in an installment of short stories by the film’s director.

The acclaimed short stories by David Bezmozgis including Natasha were first published in Harper’s Weekly in 2004. Viewed at the Palo Alto venue of the Festival, this review considers also the short story and this reviewer’s experience of life in post-Soviet Russia in 1999.

For most of us, the early course of our lives takes shape gradually without notice. For some, large undeniable events happen that alter our course forever. Natasha, the film, is such an event in the life of a sixteen year old boy, Mark Berman.

The film portrays a year in which the 16 year old, performed by Alex Ozerov, has his rather mundane upbringing in a Canadian suburb altered by an Uncle. Mark’s Russian family including his uncle immigrated during the Soviet era but his uncle is trying thrice to find marital bliss, this time with a Moscow woman who brings her 14 year old daughter, Natasha, in tow.

Enter Natasha and the uncle becomes a bystander and the story becomes dominated by the presence of the daughter, played superbly by Sasha K. Gordon and her mother performed convincingly by Aya-Tatyana Stolnits.

Aya-Tatyana Stolnits as Zina arrives in Canada with her daughter Natasha, Sasha K. Gordon. (Credit: Vortex Pictures)

Bezmozgis has brought together an outstanding ensemble of Russian speaking actors for a movie he has emphasized needed to be in Russian. Natasha arrives from Russia speaking only her native tongue. Her new cousin Mark Berman, hesitantly bilingual, is enlisted by his mother to acclimate Natasha to her new surroundings.

This is Bezmozgis' second independent, the first, Victoria Days, is also based on his writings. The cinematography for Natasha is very well done.

This movie follows quite closely the story line including several dialogues. Bezmozgis does deviate near the end but does not make Natasha into a Lolita-type character. Instead, the personalities are common Russian that must face undesired consequences.

While based in Toronto, the hometown of the author turned director, the short and the movie could have taken place anywhere in North America. The clash of two generations of immigrants could have been of other cultures as we see around us today or from past waves of the 20th century.

Comments from Russian speaking viewers have emphasized that the movie acutely depicts Russian immigrant life in the Americas. To an American, the earlier generation retains a reticence, an introversion that was all but necessary to live in the past communist state.

Zina and her daughter Natasha exhibit more angst and subversion that can be attributed to the adversity of surviving in the distorted and perverse system that replaced Soviet communism.

The conflict is a consequence of the stark changes that unfolded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A Soviet family departed when there was still a degree of normalcy enforced by the Communism. When Communism collapsed in Russia in 1991, everything was for the taking. There was a sudden grab for the country’s resources that cleaved the society into haves and have-nots. Everything was exploited - from natural resources to their women.

Natasha as portrayed by Gordon wastes little time revealing to Mark her experience in the hands of wealthy Russians. Their country homes, Dachas, were used as hideaways to teach Natasha and other underaged girls the illicit pleasures they desired.

Fourteen but experienced, Natasha offers herself to Mark and of course his summer takes a sharp turn. They attempt to keep their relationship hidden but to no avail. The consequences are that both generations of Russians are upended, no one is left unaffected. The exhibited sexual relation of the young cousins by marriage and it’s impact is the le coeur of the story.

Alex Ozerov as Mark Berman with his parents as played by Deanna Dezmari and Genadijs Dolganovs. (Credit: Vortex Pictures)

And the distorted life of sexual exploitation is revealed shockingly by Gordon’s Natasha. In her first leading role, Gordon exhibits a fine range of emotions for the cleft life of Natasha. Mark Berman as portrayed by Ozerov is uncertain about everything, without direction but wanting of all the desires of a teenage boy. Ozerov performs a challenging role very well. His character withholds illicit activities from his parents and then even more once Natasha arrives.

From their two portrayals and the rest of Bezmozgis’ casting, one receives a picture of an extended Russian family in the Americas. The events that unfold are not common to Russians but Natasha the film describes consequences in minutiae, impaling two Russian generations, from the collapse of a vast and powerful country whose people have endured centuries of oppression.

The portrayal of Bezmozgis’ short story Natasha is well worth seeing. The final showing of Natasha as part of SFJFF 36 is Saturday, August 6 at the Rafael Theatre (Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center) in San Rafael. Limited distribution is expected in the Fall of this year.