Potato Dreams of America is less a narrative film than it is an exploration of memory. It’s the quasi-autobiographical story of the life of writer/director Wes Hurley, from his childhood in the former Soviet Union, to his young adulthood as a gay immigrant in the United States. Potato Dreams of America is wildly imaginative and experimental, switching between traditional and abstract cinematic techniques with reckless abandon. It doesn’t always work, but enough of it lands to make it a unique and enjoyable queer coming-of-age story.

The story of Potato’s life is split into two distinct parts, Russia and America, and each is approached from a completely different stylistic perspective. The part of Potato Dreams of America that’s set in Russia feels like an off-Broadway production of Jojo Rabbit. It has the same warm satire of dictatorship and the intense bond between a single mother and her beloved son, who isn’t quite cut out for the rigid definition of masculinity that their society expects. It even has a wildly inappropriate imaginary friend in the form of gay Jesus, played by Jonathan Bennett (aka Aaron Samuels from Mean Girls.) There’s a purposefully stilted, presentational quality to these sequences; they feel more like tableaus than scenes. It makes sense, given that these are all foggy memories of Potato’s childhood, where nuance has been lost to time and all that remain are broad strokes.

Despite this stagey element, his young life is nonetheless compelling, as he and his mother navigate the changing landscape of the Soviet Union – both dreaming, with a wandering eye, of what they perceive to be the limitless potential of life in the United States. The experiences of his mother (played by Sara Barbieri in Russia, and Marya Sea Kaminski in the US) are especially haunting – she’s an intelligent woman with boundless energy, who nevertheless feels trapped and eventually hollowed out by the hopelessness of her situation. The spectre of Potato’s future causes her constant anxiety, the knowledge that he will be drafted into the Russian army and could never survive it. So she makes the decision to get them out of Russia the only way she knows how: by becoming a mail order bride.

This is where Potato Dreams of America shifts abruptly, from the self-consciously presentational depiction of Potato’s childhood to the more conventional exploration of his teen years in America. They are less stylised but more emotionally engaging, as Potato (now Vasily, as befits his more grown-up status) grapples with his sexuality and his identity as an immigrant. He approaches both by denying them as best he can, and he only finds a sense of peace when he acknowledges and embraces all the different parts of himself.

But as much as this is the filmmaker exploring his own coming-of-age story, it also functions as a love-letter to his mother. A brave, tirelessly inventive, loving figure in his life, both the young and older versions of her character meet adversity with humour and grace. She is quietly heartbreaking as she plays the obedient wife to her conservative American husband (Dan Lauria), prone to outbursts of anger and all too willing to remind her that he could easily have her and Vasily sent back to Russia if she displeases him. Her life is spent walking on eggshells, chirping pleasantly in a bid to keep him happy and yet she does it gladly, so great is her terror of being deported. Her life has evolved in such a way that she is often at the mercy of others’ capricious whims, but at the same time, she’s so resourceful that she always feels as though she has some sort of agency.

Potato Dreams of America is unconventional in almost every conceivable way, and as such, makes some choices that a more mainstream film wouldn’t dare. Not all of those ideas work, but at the same time, it’s hard to begrudge them trying. For better or worse, this feels like exactly the film the director wanted to make, and that’s a rare enough quality to be celebrated, even if the end result may not be everyone’s particular cup of tea. But if you go along for the ride and accept the occasionally jarring tonal shifts as the price to pay for a narrative that has been charmingly Frankensteined together from disparate chunks of childhood trauma and half-forgotten memories, there’s a lot to like about Potato Dreams of America.

Rating: ★★★½