LIFF: Loneliness and Love in ‘The Whaler Boy’

The Whaler Boy is an intimate and immersive coming of age story that follows a naive teenage boy, from a remote whaling village in Russia, on his journey to find love. At its heart, Philipp Yuryev’s debut film explores human connection, boarders, longing, and the sacrifices one will make to get what they don’t have. This simple yet entrancing film is a slow-burner that feels almost split into two halves, after a violent act during a fit of rage shifts the pace and tone of the whole film.

The Whaler Boy opens with an impressive establishing sequence in an American erotic chat room, where we are introduced to HollySweet999 (played by Kristina Asmus), a webcam girl who performs online for thousands of viewers. Some of these viewers are a group of Chukchi whalers who reside in the bleak Russia tundra. Amongst them is Leshka (Vladimir Onokhov), who is instantly captivated by what he sees. The internet is a new addition to their village and HollySweet999 becomes a gatekeeper to a whole new world for Leshka. Unaware of how the internet works and that she cannot see or hear him, Leshka comically believes that the days he spends watching her are meaningful moments that they share together. This naivety leads him to fall in love and begin obsessing over running away to Detroit to be with her. Rather than a realistic love interest, HollySweet999 becomes more of a representation of the connection that Leshka longs for. Whilst their two worlds of neon lights and icy waterscouldn’t seem further from one another, Leshka lives on the Bering Strait which is less than 4km from the USborder. As his obsession grows, and he attempts to learn English, his plan becomes more attainable.

Things take a dark turn when Leshka is forced to leave everything he knows behind to set off on an impossible voyage to cross the border. The combination of ethereal mise-en-scène and a suspenseful score by Simeon Ten Holt thrusts us into an immersive world of unknownterrain. Leshka’s odyssey becomes an entrancing and poetic exploration of the majesty that lies in the desolate landscape. At times, it does feel like the narrative gets lost and certain plot points are left unexplained, resulting in confusion and a slight disruption of the immersion. However, this device is also what allows Yuryev to explore Leshka’s mind as he falls into delirium and gains the clarity he needs to discover what he really wants. As the days pass, and Leshka appears to be losing his battle with the elements, he hallucinates enormouswhale bones that grace the tundra around him. Whales are sacred animals for the Chukchi people, and as he is confronted with this symbol of his home in Russia, he declares “I’m sick of this America’. In a turn of events Leshka finds himself back in his village with his best friend and his grandfather, and realises that ultimately, the connection he longed for was right under his nose all along. 

Through the contrast of the busy American chat room, and the desolate Russian landscape, Yuryev explores what it means to dream of another life. This honest film about first love is a must-watch for anyone who has ever felt a longing for someone or something else.

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