Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

The Trotsky Revolutionizes Teen Film

The Trotsky is everything you've been promised.

It's a weird, geeky, sweet comedy. It's got Jay Baruchel at his nerdy best. And it manages to open up some smart questions about apathy, political engagement, and the death of idealism with a stunning lack of angst.

It gives all the satisfaction of a do-it-yourself high school revolution, without succumbing to the pitfalls of films like Pump up The Volume (1990) and The Edukators (2004)—it doesn't collapse under the weight of taking itself too seriously.

Leon Bronstein (Baruchel) thinks he's the twenty-first century reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. He's also seventeen, and going to public school for the first time as punishment for trying to unionize the workers at his father's factory. When he gets to his new school and tries to politicize the student union, he ends up laying the groundwork for a high school uprising that draws in a pot-smoking socialist professor (Michael Murphy), an older woman Leon believes he's destined to marry (Emma Hampshire), the chair of the school board (Genevieve Bujold) and the local media—including Ben Mulroney.

Writer and director Jacob Tierney first got the idea for The Trotsky in 1999, and saved it until he had the means to make it right. Inspired by Ken Loach movies and Warren Beatty's Reds, Tierney wanted to make a progressive high school film, one that avoided clunky stereotypes. "There are tons of high school movies I love, but they're also a breeding ground for conformist stuff. We kind of get compartmentalized so young," Tierney said. "There's this conservative suburban aesthetic, like in John Hughes movies—movies that are always reminding you that there's a nerd girl, there's a jock. To me that's really boring, and also not true."

Many small details come together to make this film work, from the flashcards pinned to Leon's wall plotting out his trajectory as the Trotsky ("Find Vladimir Ulyanov before you're 21!  Hurry up!") to Principal Berkhoff's pointy little soul patch. We get high school students who actually look like teenagers, a principal that looks like a cartoon super-villain, and a crazy, hilariously square lead who hits the right balance between discredited and endearing.

Tierney's mom is a high school teacher, and her insights helped inform the student-teacher dynamic of the film. "The only people who take teenagers as seriously as the teenagers themselves are the high school teachers," Tierney said. "So there's always the question: how cartoony do you want this? Whatever Jay's doing, you meet his level. You match [the student's] level of intensity, because that's what high school teachers do."

Baruchel's spot-on performance as Leon also does much to keep The Trotsky zooming along without going over the top. Unlike other teenage revolutions we've seen on film, The Trotsky is able to poke fun at its own hero without making him a total joke. He speaks with the perfect level of stammering hyperbole ("My heart and my cause lie broken and bleeding on a baseball diamond in Montreal West!"). And when he becomes the focal point of a debate between jaded adults and kids who want to stand up for themselves, the truth of what he says never rests on his personal credibility.

It adds to The Trotsky's charm that Montreal gets to be itself, with all its bilingual quirks. (All-time favourite moment: Leon calls the cops and doesn't remember how to say "hostage negotiation" in French.) And it's a good thing, too, because Montreal seems like the ideal setting for this kind of intergenerational conversation. What better place to make an uncheesy movie about revolution than a province that's recently had one—and managed to do it quietly?

In many respects, the crew of The Trotsky kept things unabashedly local. "I never wanted to make this film in America, and I didn't feel like there was an America where that would be possible," Tierney said. "I always felt like this is my point of view, this is what I have to offer that's different—I didn't feel like I should rein it in."

Tierney seemed genuinely surprised that Canadians are so reluctant to be themselves on screen, given the wealth of resources they have at their disposal right at home. The Trotsky's soundtrack is heavily Canadian, with a score from Montreal band Malajube. "Fuck, we live in a city with such good music," Tierney said. "I was amazed no one asked them [to write a score] before me. They were a majorly untapped resource."

In capturing local colour, Tierney even squeezed a glimpse of real-life student protest into the film. He wanted to shoot some scenes at McGill University, and found that it was way too expensive for a film with The Trotsky's budget. "Basically only big American studios that come in can afford to shoot at McGill," Tierney said. So, to stick it to the university, he trained his camera on McGill as much as he possibly could throughout the filming without setting foot on the campus—and captured shots of McGill's student-driven "Reclaim Your Campus" campaign, which, ironically, later flopped due to widespread apathy.

All these little touches of realism help the film feel genuine, and many of its insights about student apathy ring true. And at the same time, the premise is so bizarre, it frees up history. It blows away all those stultifying, calcified versions of twentieth-century history—idealism equals dangerous, profit motive equals mature—by locating them in high school.

When the ghosts of social movements past come out for a social-justice-themed high school dance, history still feels negotiable. You might have been told your ideals are hopeless or stupid or naïve, but it's all still on the table, the same way Leon is always turning things around after people tell him, "It's over!" The result is a playful approach to heavy parts of history.

And how does Tierney actually feel about communism? "We're seeing other people," he said. "Especially the way the word gets thrown around now, we don't even know what the word means anymore. When I was a teenager, I would tell you I'm a communist in a heartbeat, hopefully to piss you off. Now it translates into me being a guy who spoils his ballot a lot of the time."

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—The Ethics of An Eleven-Year-Old Assassin, or, Why Kick-Ass Doesn't
—The Talented Mr. Lipsett
—Persian Dub

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