Courtesy of SXSW

Written, directed and produced by Wes Hurley (“Fallen Jewel”), “Potato Dreams of America” has been years in the making. The film, based on real events in Hurley’s life, has had different iterations, including a short, “Little Potato,” which won the documentary short Jury Prize at SXSW in 2020, and a VR short entitled “Potato Dreams.” But the runup to this film goes beyond its previous forms: Through its autobiographical format, the audience gets to see how film shaped the life of a young Hurley — and his proxy character Potato — throughout his life. 

Despite my initial misconception, the title doesn’t refer to dreams that are potato-based, but instead the action of dreaming done by Potato — his mother Lena’s pet name for him (the character’s actual name is Vasily, but since he is billed and referred to as Potato, I’m going to refer to him as such). The film follows the titular Potato and his mother through their immigration from Russia to America and his coming-of-age-while-coming-out-as-gay experiences, using different actors and different filmmaking styles to tell it.

The first part of the film takes place in 1985 Russia. This portion uses obvious sets, bright colors, dramatic orchestral scores and caricatures — think Wes Anderson — to tell the story of Hurley’s Russian childhood in notably unaccented English. The character billed as “Russian Potato” (Hersh Powers, “Sadie”) and his mother, billed as “Young Lena” (Sera Barbieri, “Lightning”) navigate the conservative landscape of the Soviet Union (and the new freedoms that come once the Iron Curtain falls) through a fond attachment to movies and quick comedic timing. Their love for films makes its way into their joy for finding a third “renegade” channel on their TV that plays American movies and the fact that Lena briefly moves in with a man solely so she and Potato can experience his color TV.

This first part is staged almost like a play, with creative filmmaking choices that give this perception of childhood an almost whimsical feel. In an opening scene, a young Potato frames his arguing parents with his thumbs and forefingers, as a sort of imagination sequence. This instance of domestic abuse turns into a choreographed stage fight with a toddler-aged Potato watching from the audience. 

A moment where someone at school tells him to “take Jesus with him” prompts him to do just that: Potato creates an imaginary friend equivalent of Jesus (Jonathan Bennett, “Mean Girls”) and takes him by the hand into his apartment (truly, no one warned me that the love interest from “Mean Girls” would be playing a goofy, long-haired Jesus who yells at the TV and gives Potato bad advice). When his mother reads an advertisement to become a mail-order bride, the background behind the window becomes the stage for an infomercial-type advertisement that is meant to take place in Lena’s head: “Are you tired of Russian men?” And as Lena wretchedly observes how she feels stuck — “Don’t you feel the walls closing in?” — it’s accompanied by rumbling and falling debris.

This brings us to the next part, where Lena’s participation in the mail-order bride program lands them the opportunity to come to America to live with a man named John (Dan Lauria, “The Wonder Years”). As they head to Seattle, Wash., to live with John, however, the film takes an abrupt turn. The filmmaking becomes more conventional, the cartoonish sets disappear and the actors for Potato and Lena change — Tyler Bocock (in his feature film debut) takes over as “American Potato” and Marya Sea Kaminski (“Pacific Aggression”) takes over as “American Lena.” These two new actors have heavy Russian accents, making it clear that this is no longer a staged and exaggerated recreation but instead a more standard narrative.

The new location brings new challenges for both Potato and Lena: the classic fish-out-of-water immigrant story, the going-to-a-new-school story, the coming out story. More importantly, though, there’s the addition of John, the stepfather, who holds the threat of sending them back to Russia over their heads if their “values” don’t seem to align with his. The conflict is clear: If John were to discover Potato’s sexual orientation, they would be forced out of America. In this context, John holds all of the cards. 

While the staged sequences in Russia find humorous moments in their unconventionality — like, say, an ostentatious, glittery dance number that features the Virgin Mary tossing Baby Jesus to a backup dancer — the second part focuses on the subtle and sometimes unfunny comedy of everyday life, like a funny sequence where Potato tries to work up the nerve to check out a film from the “Gay and Lesbian” section of the video store. It also finds the beauty in their new home, with beautiful shots of the Seattle skyline. But much of the strength is found in the emotional moments and the significant relationships. A scene where Potato comes out to his mother, while conventional, is still moving and precious. 

With every bout of creativity, there are risks. While the different settings and different styles in “Potato Dreams of America” are fascinating, the transition between staged Russia and candid America is awkward and slightly abrupt. The two sets of Potatoes and Lenas are both charming in their own ways, but the structure of the film makes it difficult to follow the exact timeline. 

Even if the film feels disjointed at times, there is a lot to be said about its ingenuity. Along with Hurley’s creative filmmaking, the story itself is engrossing, with enough cynical jabs and delightfully unexpected moments to keep it energetic and entertaining — not to mention a meta ending that brilliantly ties everything together. 

I’ll admit that some of my enjoyment of the film faltered as it approached the 90-minute mark.  The film’s strongest momentum is found in the relationship between Potato and his mother. As a result, Potato moving away from his mother, especially when paired with some unexpected character shifts, causes the film to lose some of its spark near the end. 

But it’s harder to criticize Hurley’s film for unrealistic plot twists or forced character development when its plot is based on real events and its characters are based on real people. The closing credits offer a chance to see side-by-side photos of the actors versus the people they were based on, and the strong resemblance shows an attention to detail that can only mean one thing: Hurley poured his entire heart, soul and history into this film.  

Many films these days seem to press themselves into one category or another. Yet “Potato Dreams of America” seems to be genre-less: emotional and witty, thought-provoking and entertaining. It’s not just an immigrant film, or a coming-out film or a story about the strength of family; it’s not even just one style or one way to tell those stories. It’s true that this is a story he’s told before, but it’s worth retelling, if only because of the layers of pain and joy. 

Between Hurley’s creative filmmaking, darkly funny script, the effective tackling of pertinent issues and the beauty of a bond between mother and son, “Potato Dreams of America” might just be a film to watch out for.

Senior Arts Editor Kari Anderson can be reached at kariand@umich.edu.