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The Trotsky: Travails of a hallway revolutionary

Ricky Mabe, Jay Baruchel and Kaniehtiio Horn in The Trotsky, an Alliance Films release.

3 out of 4 stars


The Trotsky

  • Written and Directed by Jacob Tierney
  • Starring Jay Baruchel, Emily Hampshire, Geneviève Bujold, Saul Rubinek, Colm Feore and Michael Murphy
  • Classification: 14A

Fitfully charming and sitcom cute, The Trotsky (it even sounds like a Seinfeld episode) is the story of a Montreal high school kid who believes he's the reincarnation of Lev Davidovich Bronstein. Or as history knows him, Leon Trotsky, second-in-command of the Russian Revolution.

The film begins with Leon (Jay Baruchel) organizing workers in protest at his father's garment factory. Before long, his mother shows up from tennis lessons to offer moral support and a stack of tuna salad sandwiches. "Maw-um," Leon complains, "it's a hunger strike!"

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Tired of being vilified, dad (Saul Rubinek) announces he's cutting off Leon's private-school payments. Mr. Permanent Revolution is exiled to public school, where he'll actually have to mingle with the proletariat. The Trotsky playfully exaggerates its young hero's dilemma by referencing the Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, as we see an unattended baby carriage bounce down a steep staircase with little Leon bawling away inside.

That's a great sight gag, even if it's been milked before in Naked Gun 33 1/3 and Woody Allen's Bananas. Come to think of it, those wooly entertainments, not Sergei Eisenstein's 1926 post-revolution rallying cry, would seem the true inspiration for writer-director Jacob Tierney's eager-to-please comedy.

And that's okay. Dressed in a serious suit and meticulously formal in all manner of speech, Baruchel does a winning impersonation of a doggedly patient revolutionary hero - a young man who believes he is sailing on the tide of history. At one point, Leon falls in love with a decade-older graduate student (Emily Hampshire). She drinks too much at a party and, against her better judgment, falls into bed with him.

Hours later, they have to race off (every morning for Leon is a rendezvous with destiny). But perhaps the older woman isn't quite, how shall we say this - ready. "Do you think you need a shower?" always helpful Leon wonders aloud.

Leon's skirmishes with his parents and an officious public-school principal, Mr. Berkhoff (Colm Feore), a stern disciplinarian who has a framed portrait of a German shepherd atop his desk, are also scattered with laughs. The Trotsky goes down easily and, for what it's worth, is better mannered than most contemporary youth comedies.

Still, the film would have to be considered at least a mild disappointment. Trotsky barging through modern day North America, turning a bourgeois, West Montreal Jewish family upside down, then creating a riot in an affluent, complacent local high school, is a brilliant comic idea. The Trotsky should be at least as much fun as Pump Up the Volume (1990), another call for teenage revolution from a Montreal filmmaker (Allan Moyle).

Certainly, the movie should be more provocative. Leon's specific problems with his dad, his upbringing, Montreal, capitalism, the way the world does and doesn't work, have to be a bigger part of any story entitled The Trotsky. And the film ought to have more to say about Leon's comrades, the high school kids he's hoping to lead in the Fourth International. Or would that be the Fifth?

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Tierney clearly knows his Trotsky. The film ends with a shrewd sequence that has Leon wondering about the resolve of his fellow revolutionaries. The same thought occurred to Trotsky, who, late in life, before the murderous ice pick descended in Mexico, wrote: "We would be compelled to acknowledge that Stalinism was rooted not in the backwardness of the country, but in the congenital incapability of the proletariat to be a ruling class."

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