Eve's Bayou, obviously, fixes its geographic location around a swamp. Unfortunately, that's also where it lives as a dramatic organism. A first-time writing and directing effort from Kasi Lemmons, this is a film let loose in its larval state. It's evolved from a strong lineage, with plenty of honorable dramatic intentions on display. A coming-of-age story that hasn't quite come of age, its depiction of the black Southern mysticism ingrained in the culture of the Deep South shows off an inheritance of traits from such hallmarks as To Kill a Mockingbird and To Sleep with Anger. It just never quite manages to be its own film.
The chief problem is that Lemmons, the engaging character actress best known for her turn as Jodie Foster's fellow female FBI trainee in The Silence of the Lambs, doesn't seem to realize that capturing the feel of a time and place, the lazy, hazy, muggy and magical rhythms of the Deep South, has more to do with finding the rhythms and textures of human behavior than with supplying multiple shots of trees with kudzu hanging off every branch. Eve's Bayou looks nice, and holds some strong performances, particularly by young Jurnee Smollett as the title character, but it has far too small a knack for characterization. People here consist of, at most, a single note, and the film has no trouble playing these same notes over and over again.
Much of the story is from the point of view of little Eve, who floats around between time with her philandering doctor dad, her mischievous younger brother and sassy older sister, her overprotective mother (Lynn Whitfield) and her psychic aunt (Debbi Morgan). Eve herself is a good little girl and, like all children, very curious. She can't understand why her beloved father fools around, or why her mother won't let her out of the house, or how her aunt can tell so much about a person by touching their hands, or what it means that she herself is having visions. But, because none of these characters feels like anything but a type, we can't share her curiosity.
As in Mockingbird, the film begins with an unseen adult lending some verbal perspective on her past. Named after her grandmother, a freed slave who bore many children with the master who freed her, Eve Batiste tells us right off the bat that, at ten years old, she killed her own father. It's the first of many death threats, though her father, at first appearance, doesn't appear to be deserving of death. Louis Batiste (Samuel L. Jackson) is an affable doctor and family man, whose one vice is his rampant infidelity. Early on in the film, his family throws a party in their reasonably prosperous home, where, between entertaining guests, dancing with his daughter, and affirming his undying love for his wife, he takes a moment to take another woman out to the woodshed. Jackson plays the father with an affable charm and with this contradiction intact; he is a man who truly believes it when he calls his wife a perfect woman, even though he's just cheated on her.
This contradiction is both the film's strongest and most damaging asset. After many threats of death, the film has to come through on one of them, and it's written itself into a corner from which it can't escape. Getting from point A to point B becomes more important than any attempts at drawing interesting human beings. When young Eve's response after being told of her father's attempt at incestuous behavior is a straight-faced 'I'll kill him,' instead of the deluge of warring emotions that would come to any child who loved her father, you know you're in the presence of soap opera. Eve's Bayou is never quite brought to life-it's the type of movie where the music never seems stop, and always seems to tell you exactly how to feel, depriving you of the opportunity to feel anything for yourself.