The beautiful desolation of "Bombay Beach" makes it difficult to describe as a documentary. Alma Har'el's directorial debut takes a nonfiction setting and displays its haunting qualities in poetic terms. The small, impoverished community where the movie is set - buried in the heat of the Colorado desert in Southern California, on the cusp of the man-made Salton Sea - brings to mind the remnants of a vacation resort in a post-apocalyptic world. These are real people living in an abandoned fairy tale, with little to do besides stare into the horizon and sigh.
Har'el often frames her subjects in silhouette, emphasizing the empty blue sky and equally barren landscape. They each have a reason for wandering to this forgotten no man's land, which lies several miles from the rest of the settled world, as the director reminds us with occasional cutaways to other locations. Har'el focuses on a trio of individuals, each of whom fleshes out the broader sense of isolation and yearning to escape their surroundings.
African-American teen CeeJay Thompson, an aspiring NFL player who fled Los Angeles after witnessing his cousin's death in gang violence, struggles to keep his grades up so he can escape to college. A curmudgeonly octogenarian named Red mutters about past regrets. The most fascinating micro-story, however, belongs to the family of Michael and Pamela Parish, who maintained a bombing range in their backyard out of sheer boredom until they ran into trouble with child protective services. Their petite seven-year-old son, Benny, suffers from bipolar disorder. Unsurprisingly, he's the biggest dreamer of the bunch, because he doesn't even know how much of the world exists beyond his remote surroundings. Of the 100-odd remaining residents of Bombay Beach, his presence is probably the most tragic of all.
Har'el underscores these sentiments with a whimsical soundtrack featuring mournful tunes by Bob Dylan and Beirut, the latter of which delivers horn-filled tracks that both celebrate and mourn the inevitable passage of time. Although designed in classic verité fashion, Har'el seamlessly integrates dance numbers featuring her subjects, allowing a deeper expression of their sorrow than any one of them knows how to express in words. There are echoes here of the community profile documentary "45365," which follows several Ohio residents through one year of their lives. But Har'el adds a surreal twist to her environment that unearths its lyrical potential. It's not enough that Red says, "Life is nothing but a habit;" he also symbolically takes two of the cigarettes he constantly smokes and toys around with them in close-up, as if choreographing his own intimate dance of death.
With its final imaginary bit, featuring an impossibly mustache-clad Benny taking command of a firetruck, "Bombay Beach" erupts into an experimental treatise on the power of fantasizing as an expression of hope. The movie's existing poster boasts an enthusiastic quote from Terry Gilliam, which is about right; Har'el's work contains an otherworldly dimension not unlike Gilliam's oeuvre - both dreamlike and intimately familiar.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having steadily gathered buzz since its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, "Bombay Beach" is poised to land a few distribution offers. In the right hands, it could continue to gain indie accolades and perform well in limited release.
criticWIRE grade: A