Director: Valeriy Todorovskiy
Runtime: 130 min
Despite what you might expect, Hipsters is not a snide mumblecore comedy set in Brooklyn featuring a cast of skinny jeans-wearing ironically bespectacled twenty-somethings with feigned aloofness and a chic political awareness. No, Hipsters is in fact something far more joyful and unexpected. Set in 1955 Moscow, this vibrant musical-romance centers on a group of young people who willfully reject the (communist) party line in favor of dazzling glad rags and American jazz music. But in the midst of Cold War era Russia, favoring American pop culture isn’t just subversive; it’s treason. And in a grim world painted by poverty and cloaked in gray, these decadent deviants proudly stand out in plaid suits, poodle skirts and pompadours so bright they are practically radioactive! They laugh loudly and flaunt their differences, drawing fascination and ire from the Communist Union of Youth, who regularly raid their underground parties, tackling hipsters to cut away their colorful clothes and shear their defiant hairdos!
It’s on one of these raids that square Mels (Anton Shagin) meets hip Polina (Oksana Akinshina), or “Good Time Polly” as the hipsters call her. Unlike his fellow comrade Katya (Evgeniya Khirivskaya), Polly is a scandalous flirt with her red lipstick and tantalizingly revealing dresses. Mels is instantly drawn to her, and so begins this saga of boy meets girl. Mels shops the black market to score acceptably bold duds and a saxophone to gain the notice of this golden girl. In short order he — like his new friends — is rechristened with a more American-sounding name, and becomes Mel. This transformation baffles Katya, but it doesn’t manage to kill her crush on him. And so it goes, the deeper in love Mel(s) falls for jazz, Polly and the hipster lifestyle, the more at risk he is for being declared a traitor to Mother Russia.
For all the film’s dark moments, Hipsters is kept refreshingly lithe with its intoxicating musical numbers that bring a song to the lips to all those within the hipsters’ sphere. The poverty-stricken residents of a crumbling apartment building burst forth in exaltation! Haggard old men hoist their beer glasses in a dive bar, proclaiming the glory of jazz! Hipsters croon and twirl in various settings, while wannabe Mels learns to “boogie woogie” in a dance number reminiscent to Footloose! Admittedly, the song lyric subtitles suffer from crude translation, but the energy of this effort is so full of cheek and whimsy that it’s impossible not to be pulled in! The staging is odd and exuberant with a tone similar to the manic energy of John Waters’ Cry Baby. Actually, the film’s only real snare is that at 130 minutes, it feels a bit long for a musical. But apparently that was no issue in its native land, where Hipsters (a.k.a. Stilyagi) won a number of Nika Awards (the Russian equivalent of the Oscar), including Best Costume, Best Production Design and Best Picture.
Like it’s heroes, Hipsters shows clear American inspirations, but uses them to create something curious and new. It’s a tale of coming into adulthood told with fearless flare and an unparalleled sense of joy, featuring performances that are often cartoonish but always compelling. All in all, Hipsters is sensational.
Hipsters opens in Los Angeles October 28th, and in Seattle December 2nd.
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