The elements of the “executive order” hint at a fascinating commentary. The voluntary “Return Yourself Now” program sounds absurd and slyly evil in the same way as “Sorry to Bother You,” WorryFree has precisely broken WeWork and Amazon’s glorified culture of indentured bondage. Antonio’s wife, Capitu (Taís Araújo), finds refuge in an underground “Afro-Bunker”, where Afro-Brazilians hide among colorful artifacts from the now-banned carnival celebration by the community.
These moments are, however, stifled by a dramatic pathos of prestige which takes over from the second act. It’s hard to say what kind of movie “Executive Order” wants to be. While its satirical elements and speculative details are its most interesting features, it instead focuses on a plot that doesn’t need that setting to get across the points it is trying to convey. Ramos’ film has great potential, but lacks a cohesive vision.
“Potato Dreams of America,” premiere at the festival as part of its narrative feature film competition, is an autobiographical black comedy about writer / director Wes Hurley’s experience growing up in Vladivostok in the ’80s and’ 90s, then emigrating with his mail-order mother to Seattle in hopes of a better life. It’s a compelling story, and the film has a lot of ambition, but the production level doesn’t always feel ready to meet it.
The first third of the film, set in Russia, has an increased staging reminiscent of Matthew Rankin’s “The Twentieth Century,” and it’s a smart way to use limited resources. Hurley shoots these scenes on sets resembling a community theater production, with high contrast lighting that builds on that scenic feeling. Young Vasily (Hersh Powers), nicknamed Potato, and his mother Lena (Sera Barbieri) struggle to cope in Soviet Russia. A prison doctor, Lena feels threatened and undermined at work. Meanwhile, Potato discovers religion and adopts Jesus (Jonathan Bennett) as an imaginary friend.
The style of the film changes when Lena (now played by Marya Sea Kaminski) marries John (Dan Lauria), and she and Potato move to Seattle. There, Potato (now played by Tyler Bocock) struggles with his gender identity, eventually turning gay. Hurley goes from a soundstage to real interiors and exteriors, and softer lighting. The tone of the film also changes from satirical to sincere. Since Vasily and her mother are so enamored with American entertainment, it may be intended to mimic the look of the sitcoms of the time while upsetting their conventions. The casting of “The Wonder Years” father as a repressed stepfather lends itself to this reading.
It’s unclear, as “Potato Dreams of America” continues, however, to what extent this style is intentional and to what extent it is out of necessity. This comes with big swings that feel rushed, demanding a sudden empathy for a character who has done little to earn it. The story behind the film is engaging and dignified, but in the overall execution it feels spotty.