Monday, 20 February 2012

Desert Living: Bombay Beach Review

This review can be found at The Yorker, here.

Living in poverty is trying. So is living in a desert, and miles away from any major settlement. What was once advertised as a thriving tourist resort in the 50s is now a wasteland - and those who are left behind have to do their best to get by. Such is the premise of Bombay Beach.

Bombay Beach is shot as a documentary, except not quite. It has all the handy-cam shots and the interview voice-overs, and the cutaways to the landscape, but it's also peppered with odd sort-of musical scenes, and a lot of vague confusion.

The plot switches between three stories - the old and racist retiree Red, who's saving up enough to go to the nearby old folks' village and see long-lost acquaintances; CeeJay, a teenager working towards a sports scholarship, dealing with romance and prejudice along the way; and Benny, the youngest son of a neglectful family, plagued with behavioural problems and never really fitting in.

These tales are all set up for maximum heartstrings-pulling, but I could never find myself too invested. Then again, that may say more about my stony heart than the characterization of the cast. While Hollywood is full to the brim with tales of the upper-middle class and the wonderful lives they lead, Bombay is very refreshing in comparison. There are countless shots of destroyed and desiccated wildlife, giving some powerful if maybe too overt metaphors about the lives of our characters. It's countered by scenes of the Bombay Beach residents getting together for meals, work, and parties. Lots of parties.

Director Alma Har'el also works in music videos, and that's definitely reflected here. The music scenes are well-shot, paired with good music choices (though none of it in a genre I much care for), and while you would struggle to say that they helped the plot along at all, they meshed well with the sedate pacing of the rest of the film.

The film's ending is annoyingly abrupt. Of course, with the documentary style, it's clear that the lives of these people are ongoing, and aren't going to have an 'end' to an arc in the narrative sense over the course of the hour-and-a-quarter; they don't all fully resolve, which might prove frustrating for people who'll get really invested in these characters. Benny in particular is very interesting, and even without having my heart melt at the adorable childish antics of him and his friends - I wanted to see the fight against his bipolar disorder to see a happy conclusion. Or any conclusion at all.

Bombay Beach is an arthouse film through and through, which will delight those looking for a cinematic experience outside the Action/Horror/Romance trifecta - but it'll ring as vague and a little pretentious to others, and that sadly includes myself.

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