The Trotsky poses the question: What's a young dissident to do in our postmodern world of iPods and Facebook, especially if he's a teenaged rebel without a cause? The film also answers the question: Take on the oppressive institution we call high school and try to put power back in the (rightful?) hands of the student-body politic, of course.
Equal parts Ferris Bueller and Howard Zinn, Jacob Tierney's The Trotsky is a smart, charming, and exceptionally hilarious teen comedy that thankfully fails to dumb down its dialogue or fill its screen with predictable teen stereotypes. The film revolves around Leon Bronstein, who, like any self-respecting lefty, takes himself a tad too seriously. Affluent and enigmatic, this 17-year-old from Montreal doesn't look to disenchanted-with-my-generation bands like Green Day or (since he's Canadian) Propagandhi to understand the not-so-complex world of bourgeois privilege around him. He instead fancies himself a member of an older rebel class. You see, Bronstein believes he's the reincarnation of the late, great Bolshevik thinker Leon Trotsky. Bound to relive his hero's turbulent life, he walks among Communist propaganda posters, Russian newspapers, and copies of Trotsky's My Life. Nine index cards, each representing significant life moments, hang against a red corkboard on his bedroom wall, reminding him of his destiny. The last reads, "Get assassinated. (Hopefully somewhere warm.)"
Familiarity with the historical Russian, though helpful, isn't a prerequisite, as the film does a good job of filling in many of the holes. When an index card reads "Marry an older woman, preferably named Alexandra," we learn that the original Alexandra — much like the film's Alexandra, skeptical and annoyed by Leon's advances — "hated Leon when she first met him."
Alexandra, though, will eventually love the young Leon as much as the audience does. It's fate, after all. Played by lovable Everyman geek Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up, Almost Famous, Tropic Thunder), Bronstein is a quixotic hero, pursuing positively minor troubles with the zeal Noam Chomsky summons when attacking the capitalist war machine. Such enthusiasm from a rich kid makes for hilarious ironies. In the opening scene, for instance, he stages a hunger strike at a local factory. "We need a union, and we need it now!" he preaches from his soapbox. Except the factory, inconveniently, belongs to his father; and his mother shows up "straight from tennis" to — what else? — give him a sandwich.
Leon soon realizes there are consequences to stirring up the status quo. As punishment for trying to unionize his workers, his father, played with frustrated calm by Saul Rubinek, enrolls Leon, formerly boarding-school bound, in public school. That's fine, Leon says. He loves "public stuff."
Luckily, public school proves to be ground zero for young politicos trying to harness their inner revolutionary. First, the place is teeming with "fascists" like the detention-wielding Ms. Davis and Principal Mr. Berkhoff. Second, there is a union, albeit a student union whose power to organize rests solely in coordinating the school dance. And there's a potential nemesis in the insufferable Dwight; Leon may have found his Stalin.
Thus, the revolution is born, sort of. As one character puts it, "It only gets real when it stops being fun." Forget the fascists. How do you compel apathetic and bored teens to do anything proactive? Baruchel comprises most of the film's highlights with his ever-quirky mannerisms and wit. The supporting cast doesn't disappoint either. From Leon's doting mother to his student-union buddies to Mr. Berkhoff, each plays his or her role with the subtle exaggerations needed for comedic delivery.
Still, many of the movie's biggest rewards come with some of the more obscure referencing. Battleship Potemkin, Ken Loach, and Ayn Rand, among others, make appearances. Mighty sophisticated for a teen movie! But the film never slips into dense proselytizing even as it offers a thoughtful and accessible glimpse into socialist political theory. The Trotsky may invite the wrath of Glenn Beck types. But who cares? They take themselves too seriously anyway.