Usually dealt with in a more delicate fashion through comedy, teenage sexual awakenings can be very dark and tragic when not told through the American Pie-like filter. The story is that much more different when you add an old country, cultural atmosphere; the pitfalls of family relationships; the usual teenage trappings of foolhardy rebellion; a know-it-all nature; and McDonald’s employee levels of apathy. In the case of the new Canadian film, Natasha, it was all a perfect storm of ‘wrong place, wrong time’ that gives the main character a rude awakening that may leave lifelong scars behind.
Director David Bezmozgis adapted this film from his award-winning book titled Natasha and Other Stories, his second feature after 2009’s Victoria Day. Another coming of age story, the film, set in 1988, revolved around some friends that played on a hockey team and pulled a bit from this same book. Natasha is a bit closer to the writer and director’s real upbringing as the son of a Jewish Latvian immigrant brought up from a young age in Canada. Playing on what he knows, Natasha feels rooted in a believable reality that can be uncomfortable at times.
The film is about Mark, a sixteen-year-old who sells weed behind his Latvian immigrant parent’s backs, masturbates to his laptop every night and is basically unsure of what he wants out of life. The only thing he’s sure of is that he can’t stop thinking about sex and, well, we’ve all been there whether you want to admit it or not. He spends most of his other time reading in his bedroom and talking with his “employer”, a wealthy twenty-year-old inventing new ways in which to spend his fortune, someone who Mark looks up to as a mentor of sorts.
Mark comes home one evening to his great uncle visiting their house, having returned home from Russia. While there, he got married to a much younger wife who has a fourteen-year-old daughter named Natasha. Knowing no English and hoping to acclimate her to the new country, Mark’s parents encourage him to start taking Natasha out to show her the city. After a little bit it becomes clear to him that Natasha is far more advanced sexually than him and eventually the two start a relationship, secret from the rest of the family that she is marrying into. In a constant war with her allegedly manipulative mother, it all becomes a ticking clock to when their relationship will be revealed and everyone’s lies in both levels of the family are exposed as well.
With little known about the movie at all heading into it, I felt myself captivated with the Lolita-type element going in this story. Where that film takes on the tale of a young girl seducing an aging man for his point of view, Natasha tells the some kind of taboo seduction, but from the point of view of a more age-close gap that we still feel the same amount of discomfort towards. Natasha is notably world wise, no matter how she tries to play it off on Mark, and she knows exactly what card to play that will keep him loyal to her. The most telling relationship in the film is the bitter feud between her and her mother, being that both put on a certain type of performance for others but, between the two, is the truth of what Natasha’s mother is and what she’s become by seeing it day in and day out. There will be no clean slate in a new country because the old problems are very present.
Mark is an interesting character himself. Although very fluent in the language his family speaks exclusively, he refuses to speak it to his parents himself. His parents dote on him and want him to find a job to get his working career started, but he is content in brushing them off and continuing to sell cannabis, biking house to house. It reminded me a bit of Josh Peck’s character in Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness, but really directionless. Mark also seems to try and keep a bit of a moral compass as well, which shows a bit when Natasha seduces him, albeit a contest that he loses quickly. As much as Mark represents a moody rebellious teen, the audience knows he has a certain amount of fiber.
The problem with these small Canadian films that do marginally well on the festival circuit, they generally fail to ignite any interest with mainstream audiences, even in their own country. Natasha will be another well-made film that will go unnoticed aside from this and a handful of other reviews, which is a shame. We need to encourage audiences to go outside their usual wheelhouse of theatre goings and support projects like this so that we can get more quality features and release ourselves from the stigma that comes with films that are made in Canada. We have the ability to be at the forefront of international filmmakers and Natasha is another example of a home-raised director on a nice gradual climb. I’ll get off my Canadian film soapbox now to give Natasha a three out of five.