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Film Review: The Trotsky

The Trotsky (2010; Directed by Jacob Tierney)

Revolution of the Boredletariat

The Trotsky is at once an unsubtle broadside to educational systems, a frothed-up attempt at rehabilitating revolutionary thinking, and a cinematic love letter to bohemian academic Montreal. It is also a comedy, although only intermittently. It has its strengths and its weaknesses, its hilltops and its sinkholes, its audacious turns and its predictable cop-outs; sometimes it’s more than a little difficult to tell which is which. At the centre of this sometimes-fantastic hodgepodge are a director (Jacob Tierney) and a star (Jay Baruchel) from Montreal whose shared zeal for their own ridiculous/wise movie is nearly infectious enough to overcome all reasonable obstacles. Nearly, but not quite.

The premise is more than half of the movie’s joy, and it begs for a full-ish synopsis. Baruchel is Leon Bronstein, a Jewish teen from Montreal who believes that he shares not only a name with the Bolshevik revolutionary who called himself Trotsky, but a reincarnated self as well. Leon became convinced, at some point in his youth, that it was his destiny to relive Trotsky’s life in his own contemporary circumstances, down to his marriages, exiles, and brutal assassination. Not content (or just not hard-wired) to let destiny unspool its own gossamer thread, Leon has studied his Marxist avatar at length and imitates the original Trotsky’s ideology, dress, mannerisms, and rhetorical flourishes obsessively, all while training an eagle-eye on prospective revolutionary circumstances as well as prospective revolutionary comrades (one montage shows him calling every Vladimir Ulyanov in the Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver phone books, hoping to find his Lenin). Though he has sympathizers (notably his mother and sister, the latter played by Baruchel’s real-life sibling Taylor), his obsessive belief in the truth of his fate leaves many in his path equally convinced that he is highly delusional.

The strongest and most important of these opponents is his disapproving father (played by Saul Rubinek with a refreshing lack of winking irony at the stock-ness of his character). A factory owner who clearly yearns to pass his business on to his son as his father had passed it on to him, the elder Bronstein inevitably clashes with the different-minded Leon, just as the real Trotsky and his father did. Looking to Trotsky’s biography for a fitting punishment, Bronstein Sr. slaps Leon with his first exile: to public school. Once there, Leon of course finds the school looking distinctly fascist and in dire need of a revolution of the proletariat; in this case, the proles are the gum-chewing, speed-texting students, ground down into an apathetic dust by cynical authority figures.

The Czarist police wait just offscreen

Harnessing the ephemeral authority of the student union and lashing it to his own taste for revolutionary stunts, Leon does ideological battle with the serpentine Principal Berkhoff (a delightful Colm Feore, who unleashes indulgent smiles as if he hasn’t got large pieces of the scenery in his teeth) and a sharp-tongued school board administrator (the steely Genevieve Bujold), all while courting the aid of a former leftist rabble-rouser gone to academic seed (Michael Murphy) and romancing the possible cypher for his idol’s first wife, a grad student named Alexandra (Emily Hampshire). That Leon wins over most of the doubters and defeats the stubborn remainder should come as little surprise in a light film comedy, although how nobody ever thought to commit the kid is a bit beyond me.

Ideologically, Tierney’s script takes a swing at an apathetic generation of young people failed by the public education system like a hammer to an anvil. There is little subtlety in the basic structure of the Marxist dialectic, and this is a film whose plot extends out of that dialectic: the common people are oppressed and exploited by the rich and the powerful. Marxism is one heck of a tempting target for the unsublimated energies of teenage rebellion, after all, though its ideological imperative towards spontaneous revolution provides few of the secure goals that animate later adulthood. Still, The Trotsky does make an admirable attempt to rescue radical resistance from the Che-Guevara-t-shirt crowd, those countercultural weekend warriors who consider every act of conspicuous hedonism to be enlightened subtitutions for state-smashing (these sort of self-righteous hipsters and their revolutionary dress-up act get a bit of a call-out in the form of the school’s “Social Justice Dance”, a sequence chocked full of references that few high schoolers would understand, but that does have a pretty funny Ayn Rand joke).

Although Trotsky, by far the most comic Communist, is a humourous metaphor to employ in accessing the dialectic’s applicable meaning to today’s youth, the spectre of violent revolution lies behind him, and Tierney, to his credit, doesn’t complete elide that fact. The Trotsky never sugar-coats the hard truth that to really change things, you have to really put something important on the line, to risk something more substantial than ego or fashion sense or a few days’ pay. And, also, that you probably have to be a bit of a sociopath.

This makes me think of the Ben Mulroney cameo. Good times.

Non-ideologically, there are simpler delights to the film. Besides the aforementioned Feore, Bujold, Murphy, and Rubinek, there are some other fun performances on display. Baruchel has to carry the film, and his Trotskyan precision always seems to clash humorously with the modern world around him, even if it gets a little irritating by the end. Some other supporting performances stand out as well, particularly Kaniehtiio Horn’s pixie-ish energy as Caroline, one of Leon’s comrades in high-school revolt, and Jesse Rath as the smug minor antagonist Dwight (“Are you my Stalin, Dwight?” Leon asks, and Rath’s reaction only builds on one of the script’s funniest lines). There’s also a side-splitting bit on eTalk with the smarmy Ben Mulroney that’s a brief peak in the film’s mountain chain. Tierney shoots his hometown with scope and affection, letting Montreal become its own character in the proceedings. He also works in a meticulous and rather funny homage to Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin; a recurring dream that visualizes the abandonment by family and loved ones that Leon’s absurd commitment leads to, it features Baruchel’s Trotskyized head on the body of a baby in a pram. The soundtrack is also wall-to-wall Canadian (and mostly Montreal) indie-rock, culminating in Malajube’s obvious but still rousing “Montreal -40C”.

But it’s not all good. The film is a bit too bloated and sometimes unfocused in its narrative; the setup section takes too long to get Leon into high school, and then draws out his various revolutionary protests too gradually. Many minor plot points are dropped and then picked back up again without compelling reason or explanation, and never really amount to anything (Leon’s search for his Lenin, for example, gets shunted into a closing sequel-tease denouement). Also, not all of the conversions to Leon’s cause are fully fleshed-out and realistic. It’s not entirely clear why his father is won over and reaches out to him, or what ultimately wins over the lapsed radical Frank McGovern or, most obviously, Alexandra (Emily Hampshire is not too good in the role, which doesn’t help much). In truth, the romantic subplot is entirely too creepy-crawly, as Alexandra begins by noting Leon’s stalker profile, rejects him soundly and then changes her mind because… why? He’s cute? Determined? Youthful and virile? Because she’s a bit needy? It’s not really clear, and the implications are a bit troubling in any case.

Faults aside, there’s enough to like here. Bloated as it ends up being, the film regularly achieves a certain comic momentum, and Baruchel’s energy in the lead role covers some of the blemishes. It’s a solid production and bodes well for the future of these kinds of smaller films in Canada, which has to be encouraging. And it’s got views and enough brains to lay them out and defend them, which is rare enough in movies period, let alone in teen-geared comedies. Enough to like, and a bit that gives pause. The Trotsky is hardly revolutionary, but ultimately, it will do.

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