J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, January 11, 2016

NYJFF ’16: Natasha

There are some scary things coming out of Russia these days. In addition to military adventurism, rabidly homophobic propaganda, and teacups poisoned with Polonium there is a manipulative Lolita who will cause no end of disruptions for a Canadian teenager. The second generation Jewish Russian immigrant is not prepared for the sexual confusion in store for him in David Bezmozgis’s Natasha (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Natasha’s mother is real piece of work, but Mark Berman’s Uncle Fima is not exactly a door-prize either. His mother Bella is determined to help this mail-orderish marriage work, because Fima is running out of chances. Being inherently lazy, Berman prefers to make weekly delivers for Rufus, his suburban Toronto drug hook-up rather than take a legit summer. Since he is apparently idle, Bella Berman insists he show his new cousin Bella around. She thinks even less of her mother than the Bermans, which is causing domestic stress for the newlyweds.

It turns out the fourteen year-old Natasha is more sexually experienced than Berman. He is a bit nebbish and she is more than a little forward. That might work okay in Bezmozgis’s original short stories he adapted for the screen, but it is decidedly creepy in cinematic form. Presumably lead actress Sasha K. Gordon is of age (she attended Fordham and has a fair number of New York theater credits) but she looks fourteen—a young fourteen. This will of course, lead to problems for Berman, precipitated by his shrewish new aunt.

There are some really finely turned scenes in Natasha, including a scene where the two teens discuss Nietzsche, but the ick factor is just through the roof. Maybe it is a page-to-screen thing, but there is way too much here. It is shame because there are some terrific supporting performances from Deanna Dezmari and Genadijs Dolganovs as Berman’s parents. (Old Roman Berman even has some spot-on analysis of the Middle East situation if anyone happens to be listening.)

Gordon is also appropriately unsettling as Natasha.  At times, Alex Ozerov seems to shrink into the background as the passive Berman. Yet, that seems to be part of the point Bezmozgis is making about the soft, complaint nature of assimilated second generations like Berman compared to hungry, aggressive first generation Russia-survivors like Natasha. Regardless, the film still leaves viewers feeling like they need a shower and a trip to the spiritual advisor of their choice. Too inconsistent and frankly kind of gross, Natasha screens this Thursday (11/14) and Saturday (11/16) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYJFF.

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