Posted January 24, 2012 by Alex Moss Editor in B
 
 

Bombay Beach


It’s not often you see a musical documentary. Not a music documentary, pampered rock stars squabbling their way through therapy, but a musical documentary.

It’s not often
you see a musical documentary. Not
a music documentary, pampered rock
stars squabbling their way through therapy, but a musical documentary.
Israeli filmmaker Alma
Har’el
has fashioned just that in Bombay
Beach
, a lyrical, sensuous hymn to a forgotten, decaying desert ghost town
and the inhabitants who live their life in the margins.

If there’s such a thing as the American Dream, California’s
Salton Sea is where it comes to die and Bombay Beach is where it’s corpse
washes up. A vast saline lake
covering roughly 525 square miles of desert and sitting slap-bang on top of the
San Andreas Fault, back in the ‘50s, the Salton Sea was marketed by real-estate
developers as an affordable desert oasis, perfect for families who couldn’t
afford the glitz of Palm Springs.

The reality however is a little less glamorous. It’s a poverty-stricken landscape of
decaying houses, rusting trailer parks, dead fish and empty bullet casings,
populated by the lost, the outcasts, the casualties of the American Dream.

Focusing on a handful of characters; teenage football hero
CJ, hyperactive youngster Benny and grizzled old-timer Red whose stories act as
a loose narration, Har’el weaves a portrait of desolation and hope, part fever
dream, part tonal poem, as she explores the lives and dreams of her subjects.

A strangely charming, world-weary, mildly racist, aging
lothario and self-described “bum,” Red lives an almost hand-to-mouth existence
cruising around the Salton Sea’s po’
white trash
trailer parks on a quad bike, selling bootleg cigarettes.

High school athlete CJ is the only inhabitant of the town
who seems to have intentionally ended up by the banks of the Salton Sea (or has
any chance of ever escaping). A
good student and talented football player on target for a college scholarship,
CJ has fled the violence of inner city Los Angeles that has already claimed the
life of his cousin and finds acceptance and love in the small community;
entering into an inter-racial romance with his best buddy’s sister that is
suffused with the sweetness, solemnity and dreamy longing of first love.

But the heart of the film is the Gummo-like bi-polar, hyperactive Benny Parrish. The son of reformed gun-nut
survivalists just out of prison, Benny’s a heartbreaking figure; an anxious,
feral child who just wants to be a good boy, his uneducated ex-con parents,
recently released after serving time on domestic terrorism charges, struggling
to do their best for all their children and to provide the support and attention
that their disturbed son needs.
The Parrish family may be dysfunctional but they’re not broken. Poor and disadvantaged their love binds
them, ennobles them.

Aided by an evocative soundtrack courtesy of alt-country
rockers Beirut and grizzled folk hero
Bob Dylan, Har’el’s film raises the
everyday trials of her subjects to the mythic. Red suffers a mild stroke, bounces back, still spitting out
anecdotes and tales in his smoky cigarette and whiskey-ravaged voice. CJ and his girlfriend deal with racial harassment
at the hands of her ex. Benny’s
mother tours doctors with her son, trying to find the right combination of
drugs that will allow her son to function and return to school. The moment a Ritalin and Lithium-fogged
Benny tells his teacher on the first day of school “I hope I behave,” is
heartbreaking, his return a minor triumph.

An impressionistic mix of almost voyeuristic observation and
swooning musical and dance interludes, Bombay
Beach
is a sympathetic, affectionate portrait of a hard-scrabble
community. Suffused with
bittersweet sadness and fragile joy, Bombay
Beach
is the most uplifting, genuinely affecting film most of you won’t
see. It’ll rip your heart out and
make it soar.


Alex Moss Editor

 
Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com