SXSW Review: ‘Potato Dreams of America’ is a true queer coming of age fable with a unique and bent vision
Jean-Claude Van Damme and a Jonathan Bennett Jesus make Wes Hurley’s autobiographical tale an inventive kaleidoscope of Derek Jarman, John Waters and Gregg Araki
They say that reality is stranger than fiction, but a good storyteller knows how to make reality even stranger still, and it turns out that Wes Hurley, the director of Potato Dreams of America, is a damned good storyteller. Potato Dreams tells Hurley’s own autobiographical tale of growing up gay in the Soviet Union of the 1990s, tracing his unlikely path from watching bootleg American movies through static to eventually — a thorough eventually — making them himself. And it tells its often sad and scary story through big sparkly bursts of creative movie-magic — what a gem this little Potato turns out to be.
Following an introductory quote from Quentin Crisp, because naturally, we first meet our little Potato (his mother’s nickname for him) when he is indeed little, real little — so little he’s able to magically transform the scene of his mother being beaten by his father in front of him into a spectacular song-and-dance routine (but in black-and-white, because nobody in Vladivostok has a color TV yet) just by framing it in between his fingers. But this isn’t just some Iron Curtain Walter Mitty, of gritty realism butting heads with fantastical escapes — in Hurley’s capable hands this Potato World, even in its seedier moments, always feels extra special.
The USSR of his youth is as hyper-stylized as late Fassbinder, half-naked Russian soldiers dance-fighting in silhouette against the horizon, stagey rubble scenery and prison-scene pietàs. This is the delectable stuff of a Jarman movie, purposefully pretend, memory made arch and unreal. Because how else would Potato, cinema-lover, remember anything? Time’s turned my own remembrances of childhood poverty and abuse into their own operatic movements, with shifting scenery and stage directions — it only feels right to go big or go home, and Hurley gets that.
This review is from the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.