There are movies that are less than masterpieces but speak to us deeply because they’re set in our hometown, or revisit a time that has personal meaning.
“My Dad Is Baryshnikov,” a gentle coming-of-age story that unfolds in wintry Moscow during the dawn of perestroika in the mid-1980s, is one of those films. Moviegoers who lived in the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era, with its shortages and confusion and abrupt change, will wince or smile with recognition on countless occasions.
For non-Russians, though, the compilation of individual incidents fails to achieve an apex of poignancy. This episodic and fragmented feature debut re-creates memorable moments from writer-director Dmitry Povolotsky’s childhood, some of them quite colorful and amusing, but at the expense of a knockout narrative.
“My Dad Is Baryshnikov” screens in the S.F. Jewish Film Festival.
Fourteen-year-old Boris Fishkin is a skinny runt of minimal gracefulness who nonetheless attends the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. His diminutive size, and his Jewishness, make him the butt of one practical joke after another.
Boris’s father disappeared years ago and his mother pays him little attention, devoting her energies instead to whatever lascivious foreigner she’s hanging around with. To amuse himself and make some spare cash, Boris helps an older teenager with a litany of black-market and tourist hustles.
In his spare moments, Boris visits his morose, nearly comatose grandparents. One suspects these deadpan scenes are supposed to provide comic relief, but they provoke a sense of mystification instead. Are they Boris’ father’s parents? If so, why have they never told the lad the truth about his absent dad?
Part of the problem with “My Dad Is Baryshnikov” is that we can’t quite get a fix on Boris. He’s not a clever outsider, as we’re conditioned to expect from most movies about awkward childhood misfits. Nor is he highly motivated (to be a ballet dancer or anything else) yet cruelly frustrated (by his inferiors or by fate).
So we have no great rooting interest in his minor schemes to impress a female classmate or to get through a school day without humiliation.
The turning point in Boris’ life arrives in the form of a VHS tape of the Hollywood movie “White Nights,” bequeathed to him by one of his mom’s paramours. It’s intrinsically valuable because it’s an artifact of forbidden Western culture, but it takes on even greater meaning when Boris slides it in the video player.
Baryshnikov’s flamboyant (and corny) ballet moves overshadow the plot of “White Nights” and, with a child’s logic, Boris determines that the incomparable dancer is his long-vanished father. In the privacy of his bedroom, Boris teaches himself to pirouette like Baryshnikov, displaying unexpected skill that shoots him up the ladder with the teachers and apparatchiks who run the academy.
There’s much hay to be made from this absurd development, and the Brooklyn-based Povolotsky milks it to the max with varying degrees of plausibility and effectiveness. We’re left with the impression that some of the more painful episodes in Boris’ (that is, the director’s) saga have had their harsh edges softened, a choice that reduces the degree to which we empathize and identify with the boy’s lack of a normal home life.
The film is narrated by the adult Boris, which tips us off at the outset that the lad’s bumpy road to self-confidence and self-discovery ultimately will be successful. The journey is picaresque, and particularly resonant for former Muscovites.
“My Dad Is Baryshnikov” screens at 6:25 p.m. Saturday, July 28 at JCC of San Francisco, 8:55 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 2 at CineArts in Palo Alto, and on Aug. 6 at 4:25 p.m. at the Piedmont and 6:30 p.m. at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. In Russian with English subtitles. (Not rated, 88 minutes)