Studio:E1 Entertainment Year: 2011 Cast: Alma Har'el Director: Alma Har'el, CeeJay Thompson, Benny Parish Release Date: January 17, 2012 Rating: Not Rated for (adult language) Run Time: 01h:16m:00s Genre(s): documentary
Bombay Beach tells the stories of the residents of a once-thriving tourist resort now lost to the world. Director Alma Har'el's film, with its gauzy, dreamlike quality and choreographed sequences is at once beautiful and deeply problematic.
Movie Grade: B
DVD Grade: A
Thereís very little left of the resort community of Bombay Beach, California. Once a popular and glamourous resort community along the shore of the Salton Sea, the beachís reputation as an inland Palm Springs was brief, barely lasting out the 1960s. As of the most recent census, the area had a diverse but meager population of just under 300 souls. There is an obvious film to be made about the economic and environmental decline of an American hotspot, but thatís a film that director Alma Haríel wisely avoids making. Bombay Beach, the award-winning movie that she does make, is a more positive, personal, and problematic documentary than the subject matter would suggest.
Haríelís subjects are three families living in the economically depressed beach area, and within those families she finds three main characters: Red is a talkative old-timer, the kind of old man who knows everything and everyone in the small community, and has kind words and homespun, if often nonsensical, advice. Heís also a racist who makes no apologies surprisingly paranoid for all his seeming good nature, and makes a living selling cigarettes from the nearby Indian reservation at a quarter a pop. Heís tough to hate, but just as hard to really like. Benny Parish is an elementary-school kid who has been reunited with his parents after their prison term on suspicion of terrorism--his fatherís weapons stockpile and bombing range was, he says, just a way to stave off boredom. Benny struggles with hyperactivity and symptoms of bipolar disorder, so we follow him through doctorís appointments and new rounds of medication that only ever seem to make things worse. Finally, CeeJay Thompson is a black high schooler who (wisely, it would seem) left Los Angeles to avoid the gang violence that took the life of his cousin. Heís the only person we meet who seems to really wants to be in Bombay Beach--itís part of his plan, a rest stop on a path to college and the NFL. Others seems to be there because thatís where fate has washed them up, but CeeJay finds the place boring in a way that perfectly suits his needs.
Haríelís camera sees this world through a gauzy lens, with a washed-out palette that seems eerily appropriate and gives this rusted-out land of the lost a dreamlike quality thatís undeniably beautiful. This community, with its struggles and moments of quiet normality, is simultaneously familiar and entirely alien. The place is so eccentric, and so degraded with its beach full of dead fish and town full of abandoned buildings, that it canít help but look, on the surface, as thoroughly out of place in modern America. Haríel stands back, mostly--there are no voiceovers or explanatory captions--but she intersperses the film with choreographed sequences meant to express the inner workings of her main subjects. Some of it is lovely in execution, but itís also where the film runs into trouble.
Haríelís general unobtrusiveness as a director should allow for her cast of eccentrics and interesting personalities to shine. Itís the choreographed sequences: Benny dances deliriously around a firetruck; Red dreamily and intensely breaks open a cigarette. The sequences are fine individually, but I found the filmsí subjects interesting enough without the added exposition. CeeJayís struggles with racism and his mixed relationship are clear without the sequence where he ritualistically puts on a white mask with his girlfriend. Clearer, actually. The directed sequences had me calling into question the reality of what had come before, and suggested falseness where none was intended. Even in a documentary, verisimilitude is an illusion borne of a directorís voice, but here I found myself frequently pulled out of the story, wondering why the film didnít trust in its subjects a bit more.
The disc includes a trailer, a series of deleted scenes, as well as three music videos from the feature director for the band Beirut. Selected scenes (about 17 minutes worth) include commentary tracks with the director, editor Joe Lindquist, and choreographer Paula Present--they all have interesting insights, and the brevity of the bits of commentary ensures that they all have enough to say. The extras that I enjoyed most were the three ďWhere Are They NowĒ segments, again running for about 17 minutes in total. Haríel catches up with each of the three main characters in much the style of the feature film. Not much time has passed for any of them, but itís still fun to catch up. The more casual vibe allows for some on-screen interaction between Haríel and the beach residents, and charmingly reiterates the affection between director and subjects that was clear in the feature. The standard-definition image is quite nice looking, especially given the filmís clear (though generally and intentionally washed-out) visual style. The filmís main 5.1 Dolby Digital track is a pleasant surprise, capturing well the various styles of dialogue as well as presenting the filmís music soundtrack brightly.