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Bombay Beach - Movie Review - 2011

Location is Everything

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

By

Bombay Beach - Movie Review - 2011

Bombay Beach Poster Art

Focus World
Filmmaker Alma Har'el explores the outer and inner realities of the residents of Bombay Beach, an impoverished community on the shore of the Salton Sea, California's largest lake.

At the film's start, Har'el uses 1950s promotional footage showing the inland sea as a vacation oasis with luxe hotels, speed boats and clean beaches.

Cut to Har'el's own footage of Bombay Beach today, revealing abandoned buildings, derelict yachts and a shore strewn with detritus, including skeletal remains of fish and other creatures who can't survive the lake's super salination.

Run down and remote, Bombay Beach is an odd place to live.

Cast of Characters and Their Daily Lives

Bombay Beach, which is located on the San Andreas fault, about 50 miles from luxurious Palm Springs, has around 400 residents. Of these, Har'el focuses on three: Red, a senior citizen who was once an oil field worker but now survives by bootlegging cigarettes, is the film's down home philosopher, with strong opinions about life, women and booze. CeeJay Thompson, a black teenager who left South Central Los Angeles when his cousin was murdered to live with his dad in the safer environment of Bombay Beach, dreams of getting a college football scholarship as a way out. Benney Parrish, a charming but hard-to-handle preteen who's on Ritalin and Risperdal, is terrified that he'll be taken from his nonconformist parents, who've been jailed for stockpiling guns and ammo, and detonating explosives in their back yard.

Representing the urgencies that occur at three different phases of life, Har'el's lead characters have iconic overtones. Their stories, each with a unique outcast twist, are compelling. And, Har'el, an extraordinarily gifted cinematographer with a keen eye for ironic details, captures them in uncannily revealing moments, as Red nurses his whiskey, Cee-Jay feels first love and Benney pops pills and dons a bright pink wig to pretend he's a girl.

Set within the surrealistic surroundings of remote and rundown Bombay Bay, with its stunning and timeless landscape of desert blight, these characters and their odd behavior are unfailingly fascinating fare for a verite filmmaker.

Embellished Reality

Bombay Beach - Benney plays in an abandoned boat

Focus World
Actually, the overall scenario presents itself with a built in lyrical lilt and Har'el expands upon it by introducing elements of fantasy into the picture. She has her leads perform in dance sequences, each choreographed to show some aspect of the character's inner issues. For example, Benney, wearing a fake mustache, has a dreamlike dance encounter with a fire truck that steams onto the scene from nowhere. Benney acts out his inner turmoil by pushing, punching, driving the truck, and standing still while it moves in circles around him.

The sequence is well choreographed, exquisitely shot and definitely memorable, but it's a device invented by Har'el to express Benney, rather than something Benney has found as an expression of himself. CeeJay and his girlfriend dance with white masks. Red has a romantic dance, too.

These sequences are not unlike other non-verite elements that have been successfully used in other documentaries: In Protagonist, Jessica Yu uses a Greek chorus of puppets to act out voice over comments made by her lead characters. In Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman replaces his characters' real countenances with animated figures. And, in The Arbor, Clio Bernard has actors on camera to lip synch audio-only interviews.

In these examples, the use of conceits usually found in narrative films is justified and extremely effective. The filmmakers filled what would otherwise be a void in their documentaries and/or they fortified their film's underlying theme or message.

A Question of Authenticity

In contrast, Har'el's dance sequences stand out as auteur-istic inventions, perhaps arising from her past experience directing music videos. Replete with music by Bob Dylan and Beirut, the sequences are Har'el's embellished visions of Bombay Beach and of her characters, rather than expressions of its or their realities. I'm obviously not stuck in the observational documentary mode. And I have no doubt that Har'el's intention was to express the intangible truths about place and persons, but her lyrical enhancements push Bombay Beach beyond the bounds of documentary.

The distinction I'm making is not one of semantics. Documentaries demand authenticity of place and of person. The dance sequences in Bombay Beach are authentic Har'el. Cinematically, they're lyrical, lovely and pleasing, but they're sadly lacking in authenticity. They may add to the film's beauty and give it a distinctive style, but they lessen its impact.

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Film Details:

  • Title: Bombay Beach
  • Directors: Alma Har'el
  • US Theatrical Release Date: October 14, 2011 (limited)
  • Running Time: 80 mins.
  • Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
  • Country: USA
  • Locations: California, USA
  • Language: English
  • Distribution Company: Focus World
  • Official Website
  • Trailer

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