Chukotka, where Indigenous teenager Lyoshka (Vladimir Onokhov, perfectly expressive despite a face that could be carved from stone) lives a hardscrabble life in a remote whaling village, is the easternmost part of Russia. Beautiful in a forbidding, raw-boned way, with about half its territory above the Arctic Circle, it is separated from the westernmost Alaskan reaches of America by just 86 kilometers. But the cultural distance is immeasurably more vast, and only increased when Lyoshka’s village gets the internet, and, in an amusing tableau worthy of Aki Kaurismäki, burly men in weathered oilskins cluster round a glitchy screen on which blond camgirls pout in pink bedrooms for pay-per-minute customers.
The clash between the bleak traditional lifestyle of the villagers, who still use hand-tossed harpoons to secure their catch, reddening the sea, and the futurist fantasy of a Detroit-based online sex work enterprise is explored in uneven yet stirring ways in Philipp Yuryev’s feature debut, “The Whaler Boy.” Essentially a coming-of-age fable, the film is also an ambitious, sometimes self-consciously ironic blend of genres and influences, which perhaps convince most when they do not cohere. The extensive use of Julee Cruise and Roy Orbison on the soundtrack, for instance, is an overt nod to the fever-dream surreality of David Lynch; it becomes a subtly different kind of fantasy Americana when it is applied to a situation entirely foreign to the picket-fence suburbs that bred it.
The fake-out opening is a case in point: Johnny Cash rasps soulfully on the soundtrack, while a series of images – gas stations and car washes and burger joints – locate us firmly in a throwback U.S. of A. Down a sleazy neon-lit alleyway straight out of a neo-noir, a girl (Kristina Asmus) trudges to work, jostles through a room of other girls applying makeup and adjusting their spangly thongs, then saunters into a room set up with cameras, screens and a bed. She goes to work, and thousands of miles away, the image of HollySweet999 appears on a screen in Chukotka. Lyoshka, watching with his best friend Kolyan (Vladimir Lyubimtsev), is immediately smitten.
Despite the more worldly Kolyan’s roughhousing attempts to disabuse him of the notion, Lyoshka, unversed in the ways of the internet and its many lies, thinks that the girl on-screen can hear and see him. He learns a few words of halting English, and when she seems to bat her cornflower-blue eyes in response, it’s all he needs to believe they have a special connection. So special that when a real-life sex worker comes to the village (which is largely bereft of women), Lyoshka demurs out of loyalty to the far-off fantasy girl who doesn’t know he exists.
His obsession takes such deep root that he starts to regard even Kolyan, his rambunctious companion on many a motorcycle trip through the stark splendor of the tundra, as a rival for HollySweet999’s affections. When that jealousy turns violent, Lyoshka flees, toward the only other place in the world he (thinks he) knows: Detroit, which he assumes can be reached easily once he crosses the Bering Strait (and the International Date Line) to America, where it is yesterday but also, somehow, the future.
It’s appropriate that there are two credited cinematographers, Mikhail Khursevich and Yakov Mironchev, as the visual style, just like the themes of the film, oscillates between distinct modes. There’s a handheld observational realism to the whaling sequences and the scenes of everyday village life. But more artfully, there’s a lyrical, long-shot grandeur to the story’s more fanciful stretches: a high drone shot of a patch of bloodied shoreline; an extreme wide of the boys on the motorbike on a winding, never-ending path through the scrub; a montage of almost altar-like candlelit interiors, set to sepulchral music, as the villagers experience another of their frequent power outages. At times, the landscape becomes its own ancient, vaguely sinister character in the drama, reminiscent of the similar remote-Russia strangeness that Andrei Konchalovsky found in “The Postman’s White Nights” and Andrei Zvyagintsev mined with “Leviathan.”
All this extra texture does however hint at rather more than the film delivers in terms of deep insight into the way the internet has colonized our interior lives. And if HollySweet999 was worth that whole opening sequence, it’s a shame she’s not also deemed worthy of some sort of grace note too. But then Yuryev’s impressive, genre-melding boldness somewhat runs dry by the end, when for all the Lynchian flourishes, Kaurismäkian wit and mystical undercurrents, “The Whaler Boy” retreats a little cozily into coming-of-ager convention, as Lyoshka, strikingly surrounded by bleached whale skeletons, becomes basically a Chukchi Dorothy discovering that the wonders of Oz are all illusory, and really, there’s no place like home.