Film Review: Bombay Beach

Out past the borders of America, on the shores of a dead lake, schemers and dreamers spend their days scrabbling, dancing and drifting in Alma Har’el’s arresting, Dylan- and Beirut-scored art project of a documentary.
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If there had been one more shot here that reminded one of a faux-poetic Levi’s commercial or sunset-hued music-video, just one, Bombay Beach would have tipped the balance into unbearable. As it stands, filmmaker Alma Har’el—veteran of a few music-videos, surprise, surprise—very nearly stands guilty of imposing too much of her vision on the post-apocalyptic landscape where she trains her camera. It’s a hardscrabble collection of wastrels, strivers and desert rats who make their home in Bombay Beach, a scraggly community on California’s Salton Sea, that massive inland lake once pushed as a recreational paradise. What Har’el’s camera captures is a ghostly afterimage left behind once Bombay Beach’s initial promise as a resort town faded (glimpses of which are seen in half-comic, half-tragic old booster footage); it’s like the dark, David Lynch side of the desert iconoclasts from Nick Brandestini’s Darwin.

Har’el weaves several different characters into this tone poem of a film; they don’t have much to do with one another but help her present a multitude of viewpoints. Red is a lean piece of old hickory who gets by selling bootleg cigarettes from an Indian reservation and doesn’t mind scaring off punks with his cannon of a .44 handgun. With a casually outlaw and fatalistic air, he holds court in a dusty circle of trailer homes and, in his William S. Burroughs grumble, makes pronouncements like “Life is nothing but a habit anyway.” CeeJay is a bundle of bright-eyed teenage physicality and hope, an anomaly on these empty and somewhat hopeless desert avenues. A refugee from South Central Los Angeles (he was sent to Bombay Beach to live with his father after his cousin was shot and killed), CeeJay is a star player on his school football team and thinks he has a shot at a scholarship.

Stage center, though, is the Parrish family. When Har’el starts filming, they are not far removed from jail time that they served for running a military-style gun and explosives range. (“They like to play war,” one local comments.) Now living with three children and apparently unemployed, the Parrishes try to figure out what to do with their youngest, six-year-old Benny. A discipline case at school the previous year, Benny has been placed by the local therapist on a steady diet of Ritalin and other heavy-duty drugs that leave him spacey and aloof, an astronaut adrift.

Har’el has no problem breaking the objectivity barrier in this art-documentary. There is a staginess to her concept which doesn’t try to hide itself, using the songs of Beirut and Bob Dylan to great effect at several moments. She clearly has a rapport with each of the people she’s following, and leavens their narration gracefully over the glimmering, dusty beauty of her images. But there are many irruptions of planned fancy, from the white masks that CeeJay and his girlfriend place around them as they kiss on the ground, to the couples she is always happening to find while slow-dancing (the credits at least do list a choreographer). A scene of CeeJay and his friends dancing in abandoned houses while also smashing windows is stunning eye-candy, but feels too planned by half, like Larry Clark without the perversity.

When Bombay Beach approaches true art, instead of art project, is when it doesn’t try to force the story, particularly in the case of Benny. After listening to his relating a harrowing dream (“I was in jail for a hundred years…”), and seeing his vacant stare in the middle of a cheery birthday party, you feel that you have witnessed something true and lonely and deadening. If the rest of Har’el’s admittedly powerful film could have been less drunk on American Gothic stylistics, it might have had that kind of skin-tingling honesty.