Canadian writer David Bezmozgis can’t get Natasha out of his mind. More than a decade after stunning readers with his breakout short story collection “Natasha and Other Stories,” Bezmozgis is reintroducing the complicated 14-year-old girl and the havoc she wreaks on a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in a full-length feature film.
But to ensure Natasha would authentically upset her family onscreen, the award-winning author and University of Southern California-trained filmmaker knew the teen must do it in her mother tongue — even if it meant risking government funding.
Canadian films generally only receive government support if they’re filmed in one of the country’s official tongues — English, French or an indigenous language. Funding secured, equally challenging was the search for actors capable of handling his Russian dialogue.
Despite the difficulties, Bezmozgis stayed true to his vision: Clearly, the filmmaker is still as enamored with the complex 14-year-old as audiences soon will be.
At first blush, “Natasha,” which opens in New York on April 28, is a coming of age story set among the kind of characters Bezmozgis, 43, has written about many times: Jewish immigrants from the FSU, modeled after his own family, which came to Toronto from Riga, Latvia when he was a young boy. But as the plot unfolds, it reveals broader and heavier — even disturbing — themes that make clear that this is not merely a tale of teenage romance.
The object of Natasha’s affection, or at least sexual desire, is 16-year-old Mark Berman, the son of Roman and Bella, who immigrated to Toronto from the FSU a decade and a half earlier. Now well established socially and economically, they are doing their best to be supportive of their hapless uncle Fima, who has entered what appears to be a marriage of convenience with a much younger Russian woman named Zina. Roman, Bella, Mark and other relatives welcome Zina and her young teenage daughter, Natasha, who arrive only now directly from Moscow.
It’s summer, and Mark resists his father’s entreaties to find a job. He’d rather laze around reading philosophy, watching porn on his laptop, and furtively making pot deliveries for a dealer buddy. Seeing that he doesn’t seem to have much on his agenda, Mark’s mother insists that he take Natasha under his wing, show her around town, and keep her busy so Fima and Zina can get their marriage off to a good start without the sullen girl underfoot.
One thing leads to another and it quickly becomes apparent that Natasha’s claim to have already had sex a hundred times is not some bizarre, unfounded boast. She shows the astonished Mark pictures of herself posing on an online porn site. And then after they have sex, she coolly recounts to him how she—at even younger ages than her current 14—was photographed and videotaped by pornographers. But she doesn’t call them such. To her, they were “sad men” she felt sorry for, who showed her and her friends a good time at their dachas and paid her US dollars—though she insists she never did it for the money.
As these two underage cousins by marriage carry on with their secret, hormone-charged affair, tensions mounts between Natasha and her mother, who knows her daughter all too well despite the fact that they don’t speak. It’s hard for Mark—or the audience—to know whether it is Natasha or Zina who is the bigger schemer and lier.
No spoilers are revealed by saying that this story does not conclude well. It’s clear, if not from the moment that Natasha gives Mark the once-over when she meets him at the airport, then certainly from their first sexual encounter, that there will be no happy ending. The same talented storytelling by Bezmozgis that kept us reading to the last word of the original “Natasha” keeps audiences glued to the screen waiting for the inevitable metaphorical train wreck in this cinematic version.
Getting a small, independent film like this made would be hard enough, but Bezmozgis insisted on doing it with a script that was approximately 75% in Russian.
“I believe it is the first Russian language film made in Canada,” Bezmozgis told The Times of Israel.
For Bezmozgis, who both wrote and directed the film, there was no way around including so much Russian—even if it meant having to successfully petition for an exemption to the language rules of Telefilm Canada, which partially funded the film. (Telefilm Canada generally funds films made only in English, French or an aboriginal language.)
“To make it anything less would have made it less than reality,” the filmmaker said.
In the film, Natasha and her mother, both having just arrived from Russia, speak only Russian. Mark speaks Russian with Natasha, and sometimes with his parents. He usually answers his parents in English, who speak to him only in Russian, save for a few English words thrown in here and there. The only full English conversations in the entire movie occur between Mark and his 20-year-old philosophy mentor and drug-dealer boss Rufus.
Indeed, Bezmozgis did not make it easy for himself when it came to casting.
“It was challenging to find the cast. The pool is not very deep for Russian-speaking actors in Canada,” he said.
Fortunately, he had some experience casting Russian speakers for his previous film, “Victoria Day,” and he did eventually find a group of FSU- and Russian-born actors, all now living in Canada, to play the various members of the extended Berman family. About half of the actors are, like their characters, Jewish.
Alex Ozerov, who plays Mark with credibility, sensitivity, and emotional urgency was the only one Bezmozgis could imagine playing the role. Ozerov, who immigrated to Toronto from Tula, Russia at age 13, was 21 at the time of filming but could pass as younger.
“I needed a talented actor of a specific age and who could speak fluent, native Russian. And I needed an actor who fit the part physically. Alex was the only one,” Bezmozgis said.
Ozerov, now 24, told The Times of Israel that “Natasha” (which has screened in Canada and in film festivals) has not only kicked his career up a notch, but has also propeled him to reconnect with his Russian identity.
“[I was like Mark in my] desire to Canadianize myself as quickly as possible. Mark would try to shed the Russian side of him by responding to his parents only in English. That is something I can relate to because during my wave of immigration, I really saw no need or desire to sustain my Russian background, and my mom wouldn’t push for it too hard because she wanted me to adapt to the new world. However, now that I’m older, that is something that I’m reconnecting back with. I’ve gotten involved in a number of Russian projects, and after filming ‘Natasha’ I went back to Russia to visit family for the first time in six years,” he said.
‘I really saw no need or desire to sustain my Russian background, and my mom wouldn’t push for it too hard because she wanted me to adapt to the new world’
After trying to cast Natasha in Canada, the US and Israel, Bezmozgis had despaired of finding the right actress for the role. Among the many factors making it difficult was the requirement that the Russian-speaking actress be mature enough to carry the film’s sex scenes while looking young enough to pass for 14.
With only a month and a half to go before shooting was scheduled to begin in Toronto, Bezmozgis found Sasha K. Gordon by happenstance thanks to a trip she made there to visit a friend whose family had a connection to the production.
Gordon, who like Ozerov is not Jewish, immigrated alone to the US from Odessa, Ukraine at 16 to further her education. Now 27, she filmed “Natasha” at age 24. Although she does look youthful, some suspension of disbelief is required to watch her play a character a full decade younger.
“I worked an an interpreter for a non-profit agency in Ukraine, and I saw a lot of troubled kids like Natasha, kids looking for love and validation in all the wrong places. There are a lot of misguided youth and there is a lot of human trafficking in Odessa, which is a port city,” Gordon said.
However, the actress emphasized that she doesn’t view her character as a victim.
“She was never weak. She is as tough as nails and definitely a survivor. What happened to her was not a tragedy in her head. She overcame, and deep down she is a beautiful girl,” Gordon said.
Bezmozgis agreed that “Natasha” is not a tragedy. He preferred to refer to it as a reflection of lived experience.
It deals with the subject of children made to grow up too fast, shows a clash between different waves of immigration within a single immigrant community, and exposes refugees as far from perfect.
“The idea of refugees is to provide refuge and that is it. As far as what they become…these are ordinary people who will lead ordinary lives. They won’t become saints, because people aren’t,” Bezmozgis said.
Ozerov, too, sees ordinary, messy lives portrayed in “Natasha,” but thinks the film does have elements of tragedy. His Mark character keeps a lot of secrets.
“Perhaps, the great tragedy is the regret of unspoken knowledge that could have changed the outcome of these characters’ lives,” he said.