Hollywood has been so aggressive in its effort to infantilize audiences that a film like Natasha ends up carrying an unexpected charge. It shouldn’t really shock us to see a frank if fictional depiction of underage sex. But it does. Is writer David Bezmozgis bracing for any kind of backlash when his new film opens on Friday (May 6)?
“Because people can’t read subtitles?” he deadpans, during a call to the Straight from Toronto. Sure, we reply, but also because the film offers such an unblinking take on the sexually-driven manipulations of a promiscuous 14-year-old girl. It’s likely to unnerve a few audience members, no?
“It’s a funny thing you say that,” says Bezmozgis. “I think, yes, there’s a sensitivity to it, for sure. I also think that there’s much more of it in the culture than there ever has been, and the film is actually, sadly, I think, tame compared to what the reality is.”
Indeed, the writer-director points to Nancy Jo Sales’s bestseller American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers for a reality check. Audience delicacy aside, it was perhaps more important to the filmmaker that he could feasibly adapt his own short-story, written in 2001, for the big screen in 2016.
The former Soviet Union was a different place when Bezmozgis first wrote “Natasha”, in which the young Muscovite of the title arrives in Toronto with her gold-digging mom and then tears up the life of David, her new 16-year-old cousin-by-marriage (played in the film by the much-older-than-they-appear Sasha K. Gordon and Alex Ozerov).
“Are those characters still plausible?” Bezmozgis ponders. “Is there a Natasha that lives in Russia now, and are there circumstances in Russia today that would lead a woman like her mother to marry a man like Fima? I hear now, again, economically, for all sorts of reasons, whether it’s oil or whether it’s sanctions, that people are struggling in a way that they haven’t in a while. So I think it makes it plausible that, yes, people are leaving, and people are frustrated. Ordinary people feel like they don’t have the kind of future that they hoped to have in Russia. I think people felt they were making a trade-off. You’d accept a certain amount of corruption but you’d also have a certain standard of life. People would steal big, but there’d be enough left over for you. And now they don’t feel like there’s enough left over for them.”
“In that sense,” he concludes, “I think you could take this story and set it in the present day, and it’s not fantasy. You’re not just forcing it on 2016—unfortunately.”
The film’s claim to a kind of emotional truth is perhaps even more solid. As played by Gordon, Natasha is an object of fascination to everyone who encounters her. Cousin David might think he’s in control of a situation that quickly becomes dangerous, but the film’s brilliant, almost comical payoff is closer to real life. Inevitably, given Bezmozgis’s own background as a young Russian émigré in Toronto, one wonders if he knows David’s situation all too well.
“I’d heard a lot about your past,” he answers, flipping back into deadpan mode, “and your various Natashas, and was inspired deeply by it, and therefore I put her into this film. So I have to thank you for inspiring me with your sordid past.”
We’ll take that as either a yes, a no, or possibly a maybe.