As soon as Wes Hurley got to SXSW in March, where he was showing his documentary short Little Potato, people started coming up to him. "We were in a huge line to get our badges, and volunteers were coming up to us to say, 'Oh my god, you were in Little Potato. We love your mom so much!' That was shocking, because we thought we'd be kind of lost down there, considering how big the festival is. We thought, 'Okay, people are really responding to the film.'"
Though Little Potato is only 14 minutes long, it packs more life and surprise and beauty and humor and poignancy into those minutes than seems possible. It tells the story of Hurley growing up gay in Vladivostok, Russia, and what his mother did to get them out of there.
"My earliest memory is of my drunk father trying to hit my mother," Hurley narrates at the beginning. "I was four, so I didn't really know what was going on, but I would put my hands into [the shape of a] TV frame and pretend that my parents were in a TV and they were dancing and singing and not fighting."
His mother hit back, and then she left her husband, and Hurley and his mom went to live with his grandmother, who was furious—she believed husbands had a right to beat their wives. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, American movies became available on TV, and mother and son began dreaming of going to the United States. Meanwhile, Hurley was carrying a butcher knife to school to protect himself from bullies. Once Hurley's mother realized her son was gay, and that she wanted to protect him from being drafted into the Russian military, she decided to become a mail-order bride. She flew to Seattle to meet a potential suitor. When she came back to Russia, she had a ring—she'd gotten married. She and Hurley moved to Seattle, only to find that the new husband had some secrets of his own. I am not going to give away what happens, because you should see it for yourself. But I guarantee it will surprise you.
Little Potato won the prize for best short documentary at SXSW. Then it won the same prize at the Sarasota Film Festival. Then it won again at the USA Film Festival in Dallas.
"Everywhere we've played so far, we've won, which is just amazing," Hurley says. "I have worked on so many things before, and I always have to push a lot before I get any traction, and this has been different from the start. It's nice to have this kind of response."
Little Potato is on its way to film festivals in Los Angeles, Provincetown, New York, and other places that haven't officially announced yet.
Hurley is 35 years old and has lived in Seattle for 20 years. His past credits include cult feature films like Waxie Moon in Fallen Jewel (made with a bevy of Seattle performers including Marya Sea Kaminsky, Marc Kenison, Sarah Rudinoff, John Osebold, Nick Garrison, and Keira McDonald) and his episodic TV series Capitol Hill (featuring performers like BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon).
But none of Hurley's previous work matches the power of Little Potato. Hurley and his mother shot the short in the basement of V2, the Velocity space that existed for a few months in the old Value Village building. They prepped the shoot in July 2016 and shot it over one day in August. Hurley says his mother is "an introverted, quiet person" who was nervous about being on-screen. "She was really, really supportive. She said, 'I'll do whatever you need me to do,' but she was nervous. And after we were done, she said, 'I felt like I had a horrible illness! I'm so glad we're done.'"
The short was codirected by Nathan Miller and features animation by Clyde Petersen and music by Robyn Miller. It was produced by Mischa Jakupcak, Mel Eslyn, and Lacey Leavitt.
Hurley said his mother is planning to be at SIFF. "That's the most exciting thing to me. She watched it by herself in a room and she liked it a lot, but it's going to be fun to watch her experience it. Like a hundred people at SXSW came by and said, 'Your mom is the best!' I want her to experience that. I want her to hear how awesome she is."