Brighton 4th feels so permeated with the authentic atmosphere of its Brooklyn setting heavily populated with Georgian immigrants that you can practically taste the khinkali (soup dumplings). A slow-burn family drama infused with welcome doses of deadpan dark humor, this third feature from Levan Koguashvili (Street Days, Blind Dates) recently triumphed at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won Best Film, Best Screenplay and Best Actor in the International Narrative competition. Although commercial prospects feel limited for this determinedly arthouse effort, it marks its Georgian director as a filmmaker to watch.
The film benefits greatly from the imposing, quietly dignified presence of its unlikely leading man, Levan Tediashvili, here making his screen debut at age 73. Despite his acting inexperience, his role as Kakhi, an aging former championship wrestler, feels firmly in Tediashvili’s wheelhouse since he’s a former five-time Olympic wrestling champion himself. More importantly, he imbues his implacable character with a restrained masculine authority that makes him compelling every second he’s onscreen.
Touchingly absurd and absurdly touching.
After a short prologue set in Georgia involving Kakhi helping out his brother, who’s recently lost his apartment due to a gambling addiction, the film shifts to the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach. Kahki travels there to visit his son Soso (Giorgi Tabidze), who relocated to America years earlier to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. Kahki soon makes the rude discovery that Soso, who’s living in a boarding house filled with other Russian immigrants, is not studying medicine but rather works a menial job for a moving company. He’s also $14,000 in gambling debt to a local gangster who’s made it clear that he’s not willing to wait much longer to be repaid.
Kahkhi’s efforts to help his son form the crux of the thin, familiar-feeling storyline, although screenwriter Boris Frumin indulges in numerous narrative detours along the way. These include an amusing episode in which Kakhi takes a job helping out an elderly couple, only to get sexually propositioned by the wife; Soso’s troubled relationship with a social worker (Nadezhda Mikhalkova, daughter of famed Russian director Nikita), who’s agreed to marry him so he can get a green card; and a lengthy digression involving Kahki going along with a plan to kidnap a Kazhak man who’s been refusing to pay the Georgian women he hires as hotel maids.
The solution Kahki ultimately devises to rescue his son, which involves his formidable if rusty wrestling skills, would be laughable in lesser directorial hands. But Koguashvili lends the resulting sequence an impressive gravitas, enhanced by the cinematography of the film’s true ringer, two-time Oscar nominee Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska, The Trial of the Chicago 7). The talented DP, who has over 45 features to his credit, gives the proceedings the sort of gorgeous gloominess with which the familiar environs have often been treated on film. Indeed, it’s a wonder anyone ever goes to Coney Island considering that, in the movies at least, the sun never seems to shine there.
Besides Tediashvili’s moving lead performance, what makes the film special is the deeply lived-in atmosphere, thanks not only to the authentic locations and milieu but also the superb supporting cast — including Soviet and Georgian acting legend Kahki Kavsadze, who died two months ago and to whom the film is dedicated. His final moment in the film provides a hauntingly solemn grace note that is not quickly forgotten.