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Mark shows Natasha around his house in David Bezmozgis’ film Natasha

Christos Kalohoridis

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Natasha
Written by
David Bezmozgis
Directed by
David Bezmozgis
Starring
Alex Ozerov and Sasha K. Gordon
Classification
18A
Country
USA

On paper, Natasha sounds like the premise for an Adam Sandler or Seth Rogen movie before wiser heads prevailed: A basement-dwelling slacker discovers his new cousin is a Russian porn star – and she's got her eye on him. Whoa!

On film, Natasha is, in fact, a deceptive and delicate coming-of-age piece – deceptive because it exposes a troubling underside, delicate because it does so with a measured and quiet intelligence. It is also, by the way, the next chapter in one of Canadian cinema's more intriguing literary crossovers, as writer and director David Bezmozgis moves the Russian immigrants of his imagination between short fiction and film.

As a filmmaker, Bezmozgis began in 2009 with Victoria Day, a teen story of suburban North York in the 1980s that was wonderfully evocative of time and place – you could almost smell the grass clippings – without being falsely nostalgic. It also had its dark side: The plot revolved around a boy's disappearance.

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Although it excised the immigrant family's religious background, Victoria Day overlapped in obvious ways with Bezmozgis's autobiographical short fiction about Russian-Jewish immigrants in Thornhill, Ont., in the 1980s. (He actually wrote the script for Victoria Day before he began publishing fiction.) This time out, however, he has directly adapted the title piece from his 2004 debut collection Natasha and Other Stories as a film – but moved the action into the present.

A character now equipped with a cellphone and Internet access, 16-year-old Mark is planning to spend the summer running drugs, masturbating to porn and reading Nietzsche. That plan is interrupted when his family welcomes new arrivals from Moscow: the brassy Zina, a mail-order bride and last chance for the sweet but unsuccessful Uncle Fima – and her sulky daughter, the 14-year-old Natasha. An unenthusiastic Mark is told to keep Natasha out of the newlyweds' way, tour her around town and teach her some English, but it soon becomes clear that the girl has some things of her own to show her new cousin.

So, the premise feels comfortably familiar, but the truth behind Natasha's sexual advances is highly uncomfortable.

It's a tension that Bezmozgis manages to keep neatly balanced throughout. And, as he moves a story told by a first-person narrator into the bigger arena of film, he also, crucially, maintains Mark's point of view – Natasha is never seen unless the boy is also present – without objectifying her body or simplifying her experience. In the short story, Mark tells us that he and Natasha have sex multiple times, saying, "I kept a mental list from position to position, crossing off one accomplishment after another," but on film, we see them coupling only once. In the transition from one medium to another, she has become simultaneously a more shadowy and more sympathetic figure.

All this is only possible because Bezmozgis draws fine work from his young stars whose performances are rooted in their unspoken reactions to each other rather than in their spoken lines, all of them in Russian. As Mark, Alex Ozerov, his face full of false assumptions and swallowed emotions, captures the fragile arrogance, the actual innocence and finally the startling heartbreak that characterize a teenager in thrall to something new. As the new thing herself, Sasha Gordon plays the frankly sexual and largely amoral Natasha with a plausible combination of gawkiness and nonchalance. She is a figure of mystery rather than one of pity and her cool exterior is key to the film, leaving an audience to confront the implications of her exploitation rather than weep over her melodrama.

Other characters fare less well as Bezmozgis sometimes struggles to move his story into the larger social world that film inevitably evokes. In the book, Mark's drug dealer, Rufus, is an eccentric but unthreatening character, a philosophy major and twilight entrepreneur, who has bought himself a suburban house because it will make his young clients comfortable. The realities of both drug dealing and real-estate prices in contemporary Toronto being a whole lot uglier than they were in the 1980s, he's not a figure who makes much sense today. Played here by Aidan Shipley as a smooth party boy (whose parents just happen to be absent), he leaves a certain confusion in a crucial area of the story.

With the exception of Aya-Tatyana Stolnits's overripe Zina, the adults in Mark's family are also less well-delineated, not by any fault of the actors' performances but because the director has failed to create a company from a cast. It can't be easy to find a wide variety of ages and looks among Russian-speaking actors in Toronto, but still, there's no reason we should not know to which side of the family Uncle Fima belongs nor understand that an older couple are Mark's grandparents. The kind of questions that may not arise on the confines of the page – is Mark's mother talking with her parents or her parents-in-law? – now leave sections of the film feeling unanchored in a domestic reality.

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What is key, however, is that the two competing and contradictory perspectives of Natasha and her mother are successfully explored and maintained. As both accuse the other of grotesque manipulations of the men in their lives, the audience is left as confused as Mark, not knowing which to believe yet also never losing sympathy for Natasha. The film repeats the story's bitter ending but the adaptation has also succeeded in a crucial expansion: The audience should leave the theatre well aware of something bigger than one boy's first heartbreak, namely the tragedy of a lost girl.

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