The Whaler Boy (Film Movement Plus, NR)

Philipp Yuryev’s The Whaler Boy opens in rustbelt America (actually Detroit), moving past gas stations and ratty shops down a trash-strewn back alley and through a door into a dingy locker room where an assortment of beautiful women are putting the finishing touches on their sex fantasy costumes. The camera settles on a blonde woman (Kristina Asmus) putting the finishing touches on her lipstick, then follows her down a neon-lit hallway to an outrageously pink bedroom where two laptop computers await her on a double bed, because she’s HollySweet_999, a webcam sex worker, and this is her place of business.

It’s a nice bit of misdirection, because the story actually takes place thousands of miles away in a small village in Chukotka, located in the extreme northeast of Russia (the coast is about 53 miles from Alaska at its nearest point), where an all-male group of whalers are watching HollySweet_999 on a laptop computer. Their village, which is populated primarily by men, recently got access to the internet, and they know as well as Avenue Q does what it’s for.  

Two teenagers, Lyoshka (Vladimir Onokhov) and Kolyan (Vladimir Lyubimtsev), linger before the computer after the older men leave. “Can she see us?” asks one, and the other replies “Take off your pants and she’ll see you.” Maybe a bit on the nose, but it makes the point that being able to use technology in some way doesn’t mean you understand what it is or how it works.

Lyoshka and Kolyan are best friends, in part because most of the other island inhabitants are much older (Lyoshka lives with his grandfather (Nikolay Tatato), who keeps predicting his own demise). Lyoshka falls hard for HollySweet_999, speaking to her image on the screen and believing her winks and smiles mean she’s responding to him. He even uses a ReaderPen to sound out phrases from a book written in English, and eventually sets out to visit her in person. He could hardly be less prepared for this adventure but is powered by his ignorance of what such a journey entails as well as by the optimism and resilience of youth.  

The Whaler Boy works best when it immerses the viewer in Lyoshka’s environment, while attempts to spin a narrative work less well. It’s as much a mood piece as a conventional story-focused film and makes good use of the raw beauty of the Chukotka landscape, half of which lies above the Arctic Circle. The whalers’ lives are a mix of the old and the new: they hunt from power boats and get around on land with 4×4’s and motor bikes but send a deceased villager into the next world by way of a funeral pyre.

Cinematographers Mikhail Khursevich and Yakov Mironichev frequently show human figures immersed in long shots of the natural world, but also salt the film with attention-getting shots that disrupt your ability to process it as a conventional narrative. The soundtrack by Krzysztof A. Janczak is full of eclectic but well-chosen pieces, including Johnny Cash’s “Story of a Broken Heart” in the opening sequence, Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” during Lyoshka’s road trip, and several pieces by the Dutch composer Simeon Ten Holt. It’s Yuryev’s feature debut, and while it’s not a perfect film, there’s enough of interest in it to make it worth your while. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Whaler Boy is available for streaming from Film Movement Plus

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