“The Trotsky” may have the distinction of being the only teen comedy with an Ayn Rand joke. I can’t think of another. It’s certainly the only teen film to contain not one, but two references to the Odessa steps sequence in Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin.” That’s what young revolutionary Leon Bronstein (Jay Baruchel) dreams about when his head hits the pillow. The faces of the woman pushing the baby carriage and a guard standing at attention are filled in by the fascistic forces in his life that are hellbent on keeping him from measuring up to Leon Trotsky, a tall order in any political climate.
Leon thinks he is Trotsky reincarnated, a fairly systematic spiritual notion for a man who was born Jewish but grew to shun all religion. When I was Leon’s age, my feeling toward Russian politics came from post-Cold War indoctrinations of communism=bad and North American democracy=good. It’s far more layered than that, obviously, and one of the things I appreciated about “The Trotsky” is its complete refusal to demonize ideas. Leon seeks counsel from an activist lawyer (Michael Murphy) who was formerly a member of the Communist Party of Canada, and he’s treated like a respectable human being. Imagine that.
The film’s comedy arrives out of the dumbfounding effect that a young Trotsky might have on a modern capitalist society. It’s to writer/director Jacob Tierney’s credit that the joke plays so well for so long. Leon’s dutiful Jewish French-Canadian mother (Anne-Marie Cadieux) brings him a brown bag lunch to see him through a hunger strike. His father (Saul Rubinek) arms himself with a copy of Trotsky’s biography at the dinner table to try and snap his son back into reality through the relating of comparative failures. Even the Montreal police, all two of them, don’t take Leon that seriously, showing up to his sparsely attended demonstrations as if they’re providing crowd control for a family of ducks crossing the street.
You’d think that this material would be funny for 20 to 30 minutes tops, but Tierney consistently finds new and interesting ways to look at the character and explore the ramifications of his ideas and actions. “The Trotsky” is deceptively like most coming-of-age films spun with a highbrow twist. How different is Leon from any other kid who finds something to be passionate about and encounters person after person who won’t take him seriously? Starting with simple acts of solidarity, Leon rallies his classmates to organize into a more dedicated “student union.” The first step is a social justice-themed prom, which makes way for the eye-popping sight of teenagers dressed as Blank Panthers and Maoists marching together on the school gym.
Tierney’s film is sharp in the way it considers boredom and apathy as root causes behind the willingness of modern teenagers to pack their lives with surface-level imagery and superficialities. The resident institutional villains include stuffy headmistress Mrs. Danvers (Domini Blythe) and Principal Berkhoff, played with gleeful venom by veteran actor Colm Feore, who eats his role up with a complete set of cutlery. Equally good is Emily Hampshire as Leon’s wife-to-be, Alexandra, who is yoked with the task of falling for a man eight years her junior and doing it convincingly in this day and age (aiding matters is the fact that Hampshire is only about a year older than Baruchel). The media gets wind of what Leon’s up to, and Leon’s appearance on eTalk gives every Canuck in the crowd a chance to chuckle at the showbiz pomposity of Ben Mulroney.
With its slow-motion sequences of angst-ridden, squarely dressed adolescents standing up to injustices, the film will inevitably draw comparisons to Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore.” From a storytelling perspective, Tierney’s film trumps Anderson’s because its male protagonist’s self-absorbed imagination isn’t so much as historically congruent with his surroundings. Whereas Max Fisher’s travails were characterized by his nerdy brand of young-man arrogance, Leon Bronstein has the comic benefit of insanity (as well as arrogance, to be sure). His repetitive use of “fascist” as a curse word is akin to a kid quoting popular media to make a point, if that kid’s popular media were to include Mao’s red book.
“The Trotsky” makes an argument for how modern youth might come to appreciate the difference between political action and political intent, and it’s an honest depiction of the fight required to amass support for an ideology. Leon Bronstein is Baruchel’s best role to date in a big year for the actor. After this film, “She’s Out of My League,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and this summer’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” it will be a miracle if he stays content to live in the Montreal apartment he shares with roommates and proudly calls home. “The Trotsky” shines as a Canadian film, and may be the best the nation will release this year, boasting terrific performances, slick cinematography and one of the better, more idiosyncratic scripts in some time.
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