Friday, April 23, 2010

Tribeca: "The Trotsky"

Leon Bronstein (Jay Baruchel) keeps a board on his bedroom wall with his nine-part plan to emulate the life of Leon Trotsky. We can’t help put notice that it includes items like “7: SOCIALIST UTOPIA!” and “9: Get assassinated.” Leon doesn’t just pattern himself after Trotsky; you see, the Bolshevik revolutionary’s original last name was, in fact, Bronstein. Leon has convinced himself that he is Trotsky reincarnated. “For a Marxist, you make a great Hindu,” muses Alexandra (Emily Hampshire), the grad student he is trying to woo—he’s probably coming on a bit too strong, seeing’s how he keeps telling her that she has the same name as Trotsky’s first wife, and that pair had the same age difference as they do, so they’re destined to be married. Takes a real smoothie to pull off that approach.

Jacob Tierney’s The Trotsky is an uncommonly smart and funny indie comedy; it is predominately about teen characters, but it’s not a “teen movie”—it’s brainy and mature, and put together with smooth professionalism. Some of it is a little obvious, some of it is a little easy, and some of it wants to be Rushmore so bad, you’re almost embarrassed for it. But its Rushmore resemblance is something like Rocket Science’s to Election; yes, they’re similar, but once you get past that superficial proximity, you see that it goess off into some pretty entertaining directions of its own.

In the pre-title sequence, Leon takes on a summer job working for his father (well-played by the great Saul Rubinek, who seemed to appear in every other movie in the early ‘90s and isn’t working near enough these days). Dad wants to give him a cushy office job, but he insists on working with the laborers in the shipping department; by the end of the day, he’s organized a hunger strike and is demanding that his old man lets them unionize. In punishment, his father pulls him out of his expensive boarding school and plops him into a public high school (there’s your primary crossroads with the Anderson film). Leon is intrigued by the sign-up sheet for the “student union”, and though he’s disappointed to find that this isn’t a union for students but merely the ones who organize the dances, he decides that a real student union is a good idea, and sets about making it happen by whatever means necessary—all of this while romancing Alexandra, who is nine years his senior and convinced he’s insane.

As Alexandra, Hampshire (an actress previously unfamiliar to me) is a terrific mixture of bemusement, concern, and loneliness; there’s a sweetness to their dopey relationship, and she manages to make the less credible beats work. Ricky Mabe (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) is memorable as a student union member, zapping his slowly awakening radical with a series of wide-eyed line readings, and Kaniehtiio Horn is all antsy teenage energy as his female counterpart, skipping and dancing and up for whatever. Colm Feore’s smarmy principal is spot-on, while Michael Murphy and Genevieve Bujold add some welcome gravitas. But this is Baruchnel’s picture, and he gets the role just right—he hasn’t had this strong a showcase for his endearing gawkwardness since Apatow’s Undeclared. Played even a shade too pushy or crazy or overbearing, the guy would be absolutely insufferable, but there’s not a false note in his performance. There is, in fact, a gleeful joy to his work here.

The Trotsky isn’t quite a great movie—it’s too off-pace, a good fifteen minutes too long, and it puts a few too many bows on at the end—but it’s an enjoyable one. And it’s got a heart, which it reveals subtly and unexpectedly. Tierney directs with an infectious sense of good-natured fun; he can put together a stylish and clever sequence (like the various costumed student factions—Black Panthers, Maoists, etc.—assembling for the “social justice dance”) and slide clever jokes in along the edge of the frame (“A girl dressed as Ayn Rand said you kicked her out!”). The crowd-pleasing ending may be predictable and overdone, but I was all-in by that point; it’s a grin-inducing and rather irresistible picture.

"The Trotsky" is screening April 27, 28, 29, 30, and May 1 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

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