A powerful but uneven coming-of-age drama with a gripping lyrical side


Chukotka, where native teenager Lyochka (Vladimir Onokhov, perfectly expressive despite a face that could be carved in stone) leads a difficult life in a remote whaling village, is the easternmost part of Russia. Frighteningly beautiful and raw, with about half of its territory above the Arctic Circle, it is separated from America’s westernmost Alaska by only 86 kilometers. But the cultural distance is infinitely greater, and only increases when the village of Lyoshka gets the internet, and, in an amusing tableau worthy of Aki Kaurismäki, burly men in weathered raincoats huddle around a glitchy screen on which blonde camgirls pout in pink rooms for pay. -customers per minute.

The clash between the grim traditional lifestyle of villagers, who still use hand-thrown harpoons to secure their catch, reddening the sea, and the futuristic fantasy of a Detroit-based online sex work business is explored. unevenly but movingly in Philipp Yuryev. first feature film, “The Whaler Boy”. , which perhaps convince the most when they do not join. The heavy use of Julee Cruise and Roy Orbison on the soundtrack, for example, is an overt nod to David Lynch’s feverish, dreamlike surreality; it becomes a subtly different kind of American fantasy when applied to a situation entirely foreign to the enclosed suburbs that spawned it.

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The rigged opening is one example: Johnny Cash groans emotionally on the soundtrack, while a series of images – gas stations, car washes and hamburger restaurants – set us firmly in a throwback to the States United of A. alley straight out of a neo-noir, a girl (Kristina Asmus) plods to work, jostles into a room where other girls are doing makeup and adjusting their sequined thongs, then wanders into a room set up with cameras , screens and a bed. She goes to work, and thousands of miles away, the image of HollySweet999 appears on a screen in Chukotka. Lyochka, watching with her best friend Kolyan (Vladimir Lyubimtsev), is immediately won over.

Despite Kolyan’s more mundane, brutal attempts to disabuse him of this notion, Lyoshka, unfamiliar with the ways of the internet and its many lies, thinks the girl on screen can hear and see it. He learns a few tentative words of English, and when she seems to blink her cornflower blue eyes in response, that’s all he needs to believe they have a special connection. So special that when a real sex worker comes to the village (which is largely devoid of women), Lyoshka balks out of loyalty to the distant fantasy girl who doesn’t know he exists.

His obsession takes such deep roots that he even begins to consider Kolyan, his rambunctious companion on many motorcycle trips across the stark splendor of the tundra, as a rival for HollySweet999’s affections. When this jealousy turns violent, Lyoshka flees to the only other place in the world he (thinks) knows: Detroit, which he assumes is easily accessible once he crosses the Bering Strait (and the line of change of international date) to America, where it is yesterday but also, in a way, the future.

It’s fitting that there are two credited cinematographers, Mikhail Khursevich and Yakov Mironchev, because the visual style, much like the film’s themes, swings between distinct modes. There is a wearable observational realism to the whaling sequences and scenes of daily village life. But more shrewdly, there’s a long-winded, lyrical grandeur to the story’s fanciest stretches: an elevated drone shot of a patch of bloodied shore; an extreme wide of boys on motorbikes on a winding, endless path through the brush; a montage of interiors almost resembling candle-lit altars, set to sepulchral music, as the villagers suffer another of their frequent blackouts. At times, the landscape becomes its own ancient and vaguely sinister character in the drama, reminiscent of the similar strangeness of distant Russia that Andrei Konchalovsky found in “The Postman’s White Nights” and Andrei Zvyagintsev extracted with “Leviathan.”

All of this added texture, however, hints at a bit more than what the film offers in terms of a deep understanding of how the internet has colonized our inner lives. And if HollySweet999 was worth that whole opening sequence, it’s a shame it wasn’t also deemed worthy of some sort of grace note. But then Yuryev’s impressive, genre-blending audacity wears out somewhat at the end, when despite all the Lynchian flourishes, Kaurismäkian spirit and mystical undercurrents, “The Whaler Boy” withdraws somewhat comfortably in coming-of-age convention, as Lyoshka, surprisingly surrounded by bleached whale skeletons, essentially becomes a Dorothy Chukchi discovering that the wonders of Oz are all illusory, and really, there’s no places like home.

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