It’s strange that so many of the movies about “The American Dream” actually take place in America, especially when a Kafka-esque comedy like Darya Zhuk’s “Crystal Swan” — Belarus’ first Oscar submission in 22 years — is so effective at capturing the hopefulness of someone who’s seized by the promise of a better life, and the desperation she feels when that promise starts to slip through her fingers.
Velya, a self-possessed and pixie-like young DJ living in the cold Stalinist mausoleum of Minsk circa 1996, has always felt like a fish out of water. Played with sublime prickliness by Alina Nassibulina, she’s a true individual in a collective society, like a gnarled weed sprouting through a crack in the concrete of the Eastern bloc. While most of the people she knows in post-Soviet Belarus are struggling to reconcile the dark pall of the past with the strong pull of the future, Velya knows exactly where she wants to go: West. Chicago, to be specific — the birthplace of her beloved house music.
The authorities are probably right to suspect that Velya may not intend on coming back. That’s part of the reason why the visa requirements are so brutal, and why the line at the American embassy is so long. It’s part of the reason why Velya goes to such great lengths to lie about her employment status on her application, and why her life is basically over when she learns that the government officials are actually going to call the remote crystal factory where she claimed to work.
And so Velya is left with no choice but to ditch her manic boyfriend and her young but decidedly old-fashioned mother (Svetlana Anikey) and head to the small village of Crystal, where she’ll become a fish out of water two times over. As soon as our headstrong heroine arrives in the factory town — waltzing into the apartment that’s attached to the phone number she needs, and utterly failing to ingratiate herself to Alya, the bulldozer of a woman who lives there — it’s clear that the divide between Minsk and the middle of nowhere is as pronounced as the difference between America and Belarus.
Crystal is the kind of place Velya’s mother came from, where the shadow of Soviet rule still darkens everything it ever touched, and nobody leaves for very long. Shot in an oppressive 4:3, but with a glint of natural beauty that still allows it to seem like a bridge towards something better, Crystal is a bitter rebuttal to a twentysomething who grew up dreaming of going somewhere else instead of embracing the homegrown independence their parents fought to win for them.
“In America,” Velya says to anyone who will listen, “even if you’re a kid your parents knock before they come in. You even have your own room!” In Alya’s apartment, nobody has an inch of privacy, not least of all when they’re all scuttling about in preparation for her son’s wedding. But it’s Stepan (Ivan Mulin), the betrothed — and a frequently shirtless mouth-breather who refers to Velya as “princess” — who welcomes the city mouse into their world. It’s he who helps smooth out a deal with his mother: Velya can wait by the phone for the embassy to call so long as she helps out at the factory.
The premise seems ripe for a rich and deceptively breezy comedy about a clash between cultures, but Zhuk — making her feature debut after growing up in Belarus and studying film in the United States — doesn’t milk this story for easy laughs. Or for any other kind of laughs, for that matter. Her sterile, patient compositions are solely attuned to the dark portent laced into Helga Landauer’s script.
Over time, as the plot withers on the vine and the locals debase Velya in any number of ways, the film loses the clever smirk on its face. Its optimism is snuffed out in an increasingly brutal fashion, as Zhuk — and her determined heroine — begin to reckon with the value (or possibility) of retaining any sort of individualism in a country where no one cares about you. “You can make choices, or follow someone else’s rules,” Velya declares, but it starts to seem as though not even that option is available to her. As that realization seeps in, all of the light comedy here — much of it rooted in Velya’s doomed romantic entanglements — is twisted into some kind of grotesque caricature of itself. Sometimes, it’s as if the movie doesn’t realize how dark it’s gotten, only to then catch a glimpse of itself and overcompensate with spurts of violence that feel more empty than damning. After a slack second act that feels as though it’s far too light on actual incident, the bleak third act is enough to make you wish that less might happen.
“A person should stay in her motherland,” Velya’s mother insists, but “Crystal Swan” makes a convincing argument that its lead character doesn’t belong there. And still, that may not be enough to get her out. The American Dream may be a mass delusion, but it’s the realest thing in the world to those under its sway. Zhuk was able to manifest her destiny and make it across the ocean, and her movie offers a compelling glimpse at why that may have been the only choice her country ever gave her.
“Crystal Swan” premiered at the 2018 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.