Coming Of Age in Isolation
Every coming-of-age story is the same story, even though it’s always a different story. If you’re reading this, you’ve either transitioned into adulthood or you’re going to transition into adulthood. You’re going to take the first tentative steps into a world that, at least from the outside, appears to be filled with sophisticated and intelligent people who have all the answers. You’ll fall on your face. You’ll learn that those same sophisticated and intelligent people often don’t know what in the hell they’re doing.
But it’s always different. A few weeks back, I watched The Pebble and the Boy, a delightful English film that’s really about a young man dealing with the death of his father and learning more about who his dad was. I get that. What I didn’t get was the setting, which was a family firmly committed to the Mod movement. Mod meant precisely bupkis to me, and while I watched that film, I reacted to the overdecorated scooters and confusing slogans with a hearty, “…huh?” Somebody in England watched the same film and it hit them like a thunderbolt.
As time goes on, I want more of those “huh?” moments. I realize that the only life I can live is mine, but movies let me pull a Being John Malkovich and view the life of someone else for a moment.* From a narrative perspective, the Russian/Polish/Belgian film The Whaler Boy isn’t entirely satisfying. But maybe that doesn’t matter since it takes us on a journey that we can all understand.
There’s no reason for you to have heard of Chukotka. If you have, you’re more worldly than I, which isn’t saying much. Chukotka is, I’m told by Britannica.com, is “the extreme northeastern portion of Siberia.” It’s a place of frigid tundra that touches the Bering Strait. If you happened to be in Chukotka and had access to a boat, you could theoretically make your way to Alaska.
As a boy of 16, it’s unlikely that Leshka (Vladimir Onokhov) cares much about Alaska. His village might as well be on the edge of the world, and nothing much seems to happen there. He lives in a small house with his grandfather (Nikolay Tatato), a man who’s convinced he’s going to die literally any day now and constantly reminds his grandson of that morbid fact. The village survives only due to whaling, and like all the other men in his village, Leshka takes part in that ancient tradition. When he’s not on a boat helping to harpoon a whale, he’s helping to butcher the whale on shore. When that’s not happening, he’s delivering whale meat to those in the village who are less fortunate.
Like most teenage boys, Leshka thinks his hometown is the dullest place on the planet. Like most teenage boys, Leshka has a best friend. That would be Kolyan (Vladimir Lyubimtsev), and the two of them are thick as thieves. Like most teenage boys, Leshka is a walking hormone and he’s extraordinarily interested in getting laid as quickly as possible. That’s not easy as the village seems to be devoid of women.
Then, Leshka gets a very specific glimpse at the outside world. The internet connection in their village is spotty, yet it’s good enough to introduce the men to cam girls. For most of them, it’s a distraction from their daily routine. Leshka, however, has a different reaction when he sees HollySweet999 (Kristina Asmus). He’s smitten, the kind of head over heels reaction that feels perfectly normal if you’re a hormonal teen. There’s something about her. Leshka can’t dislodge her from his mind. If you were to gently tell him he’s just infatuated, he’d forcefully respond that, no, he’s in love with HollySweet999.
A little internet sleuthing shows Leshka that HollySweet999 is in Detroit. Like all American cities, it has skyscrapers a thousand floors high, streets paved with gold, and beautiful girls everywhere. Leshka begins to develop a plan. His plan is to leave his tiny village, travel to America, and meet his beloved HollySweet999. Speaking as a former teenaged boy, I can say with authority that most teenage boys are…um…not good at long-term planning. Leshka certainly isn’t, and he’ll embark on a journey that he never could have anticipated.
Filmmaker Philipp Yuryev visited a remote fishing village in Northern Russia. He learned that all of the women of the village left for the entirety of the summer to study in the city. For the young men who were left, their isolation from the opposite sex was total. Their only option for hormonal release was viewing an online camgirl site over a reliably unreliable internet connection.
To Yuryev, the experience was so profound that he based The Whaler Boy upon it. Yuryev does an excellent job of showing us the day-to-day rhythms of life in the village. Leshka spends hours on the iron-gray sea hunting whales or covered in blood up to his forearms. When breaks do come, he and Kolyan ride a barely-functional motorcycle, dwarfed by the endless steppe. Once Leshka’s journey begins, Yuryev does nice work alternating the film’s tone. A scene where Leshka wanders through the wilderness has moments of surrealism that would make David Lynch proud. Another extended sequence between Leshka and a U.S. Border Patrol officer played by Arieh Worthalter is alternately tense, funny, and surprisingly sweet. In terms of shot composition, Yuryev isn’t a terribly flashy filmmaker; he often lets the natural world do much of the heavy lifting in lieu of a fluid camera or innovative angles. Yet there’s a sequence showing the events of a number of homes lit only by candlelight. It’s honest, natural, warm. I would have liked more moments like this.
Yuryev is also the screenwriter, and he’s less interested in a traditional narrative and more interested in showing us a little time in the life of Leshka. Part of me is good with that. I liked seeing this little village, seeing how Leshka lives and what he thinks of a land that I take for granted. But Yuryev’s lack of interest in a traditional narrative creates a problem. He sets up a huge question — just how in God’s name is this kid going to meet a camgirl in Detroit. The answer to this question is abrupt and unsatisfying, which is then followed up by an ending that made me smile. We’re deep into arthouse territory with this film, and it’s one that does a better job creating a sense of place and character than it does with the rules of storytelling.
Nobody in the cast delivers a performance that’s showy or theatrical. They’re all playing normal people and take pains to show us exactly that. As HollySweet999, Kristina Asmus isn’t doing much beyond throwing come-hither looks at the screen. That makes sense as she’s playing a fantasy, but I liked that the film begins with her getting ready for her camgirl shift, and her vibe is profoundly anti-erotic. Even walking down a hallway in lingerie and a g-string, Asmus gives off a “just another day at the office” vibe, which contrasts well with her online persona. I also liked the death-obsessed Grandfather played by Nikolay Tatato. He’s not a bummer, and he cheerfully reminds his grandson, “This summer I’m going to die.” There’s nothing negative about it, just his understanding that he’s probably done today, and if not, he can always shuffle off this mortal coil tomorrow instead. No big thing.
The story rests on the shoulders of Vladimir Onokhov as Leshka, and the vast majority of scenes are carried by him. He has limited dialogue, and when he does talk, it’s the normal kind of thing you’d expect from a sixteen-year-old boy. Leshka isn’t stupid by any stretch. He’s smart enough to feel restless, yearn for the outside world, and know that the feelings he’s wrestling with are bigger than platitudes. Onokhov tells us that through body language and his eyes. We know what he’s feeling, which means we never have to sit through a monologue spelling out what he’s feeling. It’s a sturdy and sensitive performance that actors twice his age couldn’t get their arms around.
I have no idea what it’s like to hurl a harpoon at a whale, to harvest it with the other men in my village and know we all get to eat for a little while. But I do know what it’s like to confuse infatuation for love, to make a decision that ends up being disastrous, and to (hopefully) learn from that experience. The Whaler Boy takes place in a world most filmgoers will never see, and I understood exactly where it was coming from.
*Without spitting me to the side of the New Jersey Turnpike when it’s over. Win-win!