After spending time on the festival circuit, writer/director Nicola Rose’s feature-length directorial debut, Goodbye, Petrushka, hit VOD and digital in July of 2022. Utilizing mixed media and multiple genres, Rose’s film explores growing up via a romantic lens, both literal and descriptive. Who among us didn’t once wear rose-colored glasses, presuming that the grass *must* be better in a place that holds our imaginations and, perhaps, even our hearts. Through her story, audiences are invited to consider whether our romantic view of the world can be sustained when it crashes against reality.
In love with the idea of using puppets to tell stories, Claire (Lizzie Kehoe) finds herself at odds with her classmates in college. Even her instructor, a filmmaker high on his own fumes, condescends to her and her approach. Tired of it all, with additional prompting from her best friend Julia (Casey Landman), she decides to move to France in hopes of finding her place and solidifying her artistic voice. But amid working as an au pair for a snotty family, trying to develop a documentary at a local puppeteering school, and struggling to make connections with two different men, finding her place is no easier than if she’d stayed home.
From a narrative perspective, Petrushka is compelling in its exploration of self without succumbing to the pitfalls of saccharinity. As presented by the fantastic Kehoe, Claire is generally joyful and able to roll with things, she just keeps getting into situations that, through little fault of her own, try to pile on. Rather than the lesson within the film be able persevering over some kind of solid adversity, it seems more about sticking to one’s self, trusting in your own instincts, and not settling. There’s a boldness to this kind of character, especially when so much of the film trades in the expected romantic tropes that populate many rom-coms or coming-of-age tales. This isn’t to say that Rose created a confident or together Claire or that Kehoe plays her as though unaware of her failings, it’s that the character, as written and performed, possesses both the capacity and awareness to know what her value is. So while that does mean that she’s willing to put up a condescending boss as a means of financial independence, she also doesn’t dwell when it doesn’t work out. Instead, she pushes her attention and energy to places where it can be more useful to her goals. There’s value here in that so many films that see a character shift their location, dramatically or subtly, in an effort to kickstart their dreams often involve some reticence on the part of the character even after making the leap. Despite multiple setbacks, Claire pushes forward, even if not in the manner even she expects or plans. From where she starts to where she ends, that’s a lovely arc of growth.
From a technical perspective, however, Petrushka stumbles in ways big and small that undercut far too many of the strengths. Some of these are little things that can be mostly glossed over, like why did Julia want to go to France and what’s she doing there? Landman’s performance is truly scene-stealing, giving a bit of Billie Lourd’s Gigi-energy (Booksmart) that makes her wildly unpredictable and a great deal of fun. However, that unpredictability also comes with questions. Some are the aforementioned purpose beyond as a foil for Claire, others are how the two could have the sorts of secrets they do when they appear to be best friends who have known each other since middle school (Claire didn’t know that Julie is a germaphobe?). Then there’s the middle-sized questions like, why does Claire want to be a filmmaker at all when telling stories doesn’t seem to be her passion, just puppets? Larger questions exist but shan’t be mentioned for fear of spoilers; needless to say, these aren’t the kinds of questions that destroy a film in their singularity, but do disrupt one’s enjoyment when considered all at once.
The bigger issue is that the film itself seems unsure of whose story and what kind of story it’s telling. The film opens with a scene of Claire playing with a puppet skater (one that only really appears twice more throughout the film) before jumping over to a real skater (Thomas Vieljeux’s Thibaut) who has a flashback within that scene about how he’s getting kicked out of the ice skater’s guild. Claire is certainly our central character, but by putting the scene with Thibaut immediately after her brief introduction, it’s unclear if the film is saying that he’s a figment of her imagination or if he’s a character of equal worth as her. Especially as the film spends so much time short-handing Claire’s many many confrontations involving sexism, elitism, and xenophobia in order to get her to the next scene, it’s often difficult to recognize why we spend as much time with Thibaut as we do when his journey (important as it is to the overall impact of the final moments of the film) isn’t the central focus. As such, when Petrushka focuses away from Claire, the clarity diminishes as well.
Many of what can be perceived as issues with the film as a whole (fade-outs into scenes or sequences that are disconnected from the previous without any kind of setup, large performances from characters that lean into the comedy that often undercuts the power of the more natural performances in the drama, keeping things tight in the narrative at the expense of allowing the scenes to breathe) can actually be looked at as likely a filmmaker on a budget trying to make the best of resources. For instance, why all the tight shots and use of non-descript locations? The film was shot in New York and New Jersey, not France: something I wouldn’t have known without the mention in the credits. This implies an intentionality on Rose’s part in order to tell the story she intended to make. Thus, Petrushka transforms from a first-time feature debut into a promise of what’s to come when given increased resources. Considering the hearty laughs and honest pathos felt in the watching of this, there’s excitement for what’s to come.
Available on VOD and digital beginning July 21st, 2022.
For more information or to find a way to stream the film, head to the official Goodbye, Petrushkra linktree.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.