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SXSW 2021 ‘Potato Dreams of America’ Review: A Director Interprets His Past

Falco Ink

Autobiographical films are not uncommon in cinema. Many directors or screenwriters are known for taking experiences — or even whole journeys — from their past in order to make a film. Sometimes, this is done with the intention of telling an interesting story, while others might use this as a way to work through their memories. Director Wes Hurley’s Potato Dreams of America is the latter type of autobiographical film. Using whimsical aesthetics and dark comedy, Hurley retells his adolescence with levity and nuance. 

A young boy growing up in the USSR, Potato (first played by Hersh Powers) idealizes America and its wonderful movies. He is also grappling with the fact that he is gay, while his mother Lena (Sera Barbieri) struggles with romance. When she gets the opportunity to become a mail-order bride, the two immigrate to America to start a new life.

Now a teenager, Potato (played here by Tyler Bocock), explores his sexuality and what it means to be an American. Potato and his mother adjust to their new country while also facing hard truths and dire consequences, all represented lightly in this coming-of-age dark comedy.

Potato Dreams paints the USSR and America as a pretty pastel picture. The sets are lit brightly and the clothes complement the colorful production design. Its vivid palette references the light-hearted nature of the film, despite the very serious situations taking place. Already operating in an unrealistically vibrant world, the film also breaks out into vignettes of campy representations of Potato’s life. Distinct, colorful lighting is utilized in its queerest of moments, further employing the aesthetics of the film to characterize Potato’s experiences.  

This world isn’t real — it is a representation of Hurley’s childhood. By establishing the playful and quirky nature of the film from the first scene, Hurley is able to confront the troubles of his past with a lightheartedness that many of us fail to do with our own lives. From immigrating to a foreign country to coming to accept your sexuality, what Potato and his mother go through in the film is never easy. Dark jokes are made that acknowledge the real truths of the situations, while also allowing the overall feeling of the film to remain cheery. Potato Dreams has the same air as someone telling a story from their past: it’s dramatized, idealized, and uses humor to brush over those very real pains that stick with us. 

Most of us probably wish we could revisit our younger selves and tell them something: it’s going to be okay, you’ll get through it, don’t do this stupid thing, etc. We never get that chance, but through filmmaking, Hurley has been able to revisit his younger self and accept the things that he has gone through. The very process of mining your past to make art is in itself a trying yet rewarding exercise; what Hurley has done here is inject lightness into his memories, perhaps so that he is able to look back on that time now with a fondness, instead of sadness. Maybe he hopes that we will be able to do the same with memories of our own.

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