Alma Har'el's Bombay Beach mixes documentary naturalism and observation with artful peculiarity and an offhandedly surreal quality. I've never seen a film quite like it. This is a compliment. It is a sometimes-tragic, sometimes-befuddling, thoroughly impressionistic portrait of poverty in the desert--specifically, in the area near the Salton Sea, once considered a prime area for California development, now a barren wasteland littered with trailer homes, discarded objects, and "the misfits of the world" (according to Red, who is one of them).
Har'el's film oscillates smoothly between three stories: the Parrish family, two parents (both of whom did time for harboring explosives) and three trying children; Red, the old codger who makes ends meet by selling bootleg cigarettes; and CeeJay, the teenage athlete who moved out to Bombay Beach to live with his dad and get away from the exceedingly dangerous gang climate of inner-city Los Angeles.
The Parrishes have a boy, Benny, who is on a variety of medications--he may be bi-polar, or he may just be hyperactive. They're doing their best to be good parents, but they're both convicted felons (the father insists that they were just keeping themselves busy, "not building a militia") and Child Protective Services have taken the kids away on two previous occasions. Red seems, at first, to be just a spirited old coot, but the more he talks, the more we realize no, he's also kinda racist, and a little crazy to boot. CeeJay engages in colorful (and vulgar) "guy talk" with his buddies, but he develops a crush on the sister of a teammate, and tries to win and keep her while stressing the mediocre grades that could keep him out of the reach of scholarships.
Some of these situations sound pat, but Har'el allows them to develop with subtlety and intricacy; there's so much going on in the scene between the mother and her approaching-teenage daughter ("I was 13 when I met your father...") that you lean forward and hold your breath. Another scene with that combustible family captures, with an accuracy I've never seen on film, the way that a night of aimless drinking can turn people sour--first on each other, then on themselves. Some of these moments are so intimate that they feel like they must have been staged, or at least amped up for the camera--who could let some filmmaker eavesdrop on exchanges this private? Then again, it's the age of reality TV.
But the snug, warm cinematography, heavy on shallow focus and hanging-out ease, is what gives the picture its grace--Har'el has a cockeyed way of framing and capturing events that gives them an oddball, almost Lynchian quality. I'm thinking specifically of the guy laying on the ground with the broken arm, insisting that he's fine; when he's told he'll bleed to death, he muses "Thank God." Her camera is capturing rather startling poverty, and the camera dances right up to the edge of fetishizing that poverty, but it never takes the plunge.
There is no narrator, and no titles to indicate the passage of time--we see CeeJay flirting with Jess, his crush object, and then the next time we see him, he's making a corny poster with epigrams and pictures of the happy couple. We don't know how much time has gone by, but in a way, out here, it doesn't matter. To Har'el's credit, she lets us fill in the gaps; one wishes she'd have extended that notion to the unnecessary subtitles, which more often than not prove a distraction (we can understand what these folks are saying, most of the time, and even when we don't decipher every word, the music of what they're saying is clear). Occasional interludes and fantasies are clearly staged, which has given some critics trouble, but not this one--the beauty of those sequences is clearly meant to create a contrast to the realities of their lives, and they work magnificently. The only false beat comes late in the film, when Benny puts his head down and refuses to participate in class; it's the one moment that feels like he's playing to the camera (which appears to be positioned nearby).
Video & Audio:
The lack of a Blu-ray release for the film is really disappointing, since it's such a striking film visually. But if a standard-def image is all we get, at least it's a good-looking one, nicely dimensional and capturing the strong background/foreground compositions. Har'el shoots in tight quite a bit, and the detail work is sharp. The color scheme is mostly muted, so the occasional bright saturation (as in the party scene) is especially vibrant. On the audio front, the 5.1 Dolby Digital track also impresses; outdoor environmental sounds are dispersed throughout the soundstage with skill, as are the music, yelling, and distant drums of the football game and house party scenes. The music track is robust and well-distributed.
A 2.0 stereo track is also available, as are English SDH subtitles.
The bonus features begin with three Music Videos (12:20 total) by director Alma Har'el, all of them for Beirut, all of them quite good; the first, for "Concubine," closely mirrors the style she used for Bombay Beach (it almost looks like an outtake), while the VMA-nominated clip for "Elephant Gun"is a more traditional musician-and-dancer video, though beautifully done. "Postcards from Italy," comprised of home movie footage, is also quite lovely.
Four Deleted Scenes (9:16 total) follow, all of them worthy of inclusion (and frankly, their removal seems peculiar, given the film's slender 75-minute running time). Next up are three "Where Are They Now?" featurettes (17:11 total), one for each of the film's story strands, and they're well worth seeing--particularly for viewer's frustrated by the film's open ending. The last one is probably the best, finding Pam and Benny head to New York for Bombay Beach's Tribeca Film Festival premiere.
Instead of a traditional audio commentary track, the disc includes four Selected Scenes with Commentary (16:59 total), featuring combinations of director Har'el, editor Joe Lindquist, and choreographer Paula Present. They're all good commenters; this viewer, for one, wouldn't have minded a full-fledged, feature length commentary.
The original Theatrical Trailer (2:16) closes out the extras.
Some may question the purity of Bombay Beach, and sure, the stylization can have moments of falseness. But for goodness' sake, when was the last documentary that was this beautiful to look at? Most importantly, every frame conveys the essence of the place, and the spirit of these people. They are flawed, some of them quite deeply. But they live and breathe, on that screen and off it, and Har'el treats them, in spite of those flaws, with respect and even a dash of reverence. Afterwards, you can't get them out of your head. This is an extraordinary film.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.