I went to a handful of films at the Tribeca, or should I call it, Chelsea/East Village Film Festival, over the weekend, and “Bombay Beach” clearly stands out as one of the most intriguing titles.
The docs, as usual, were far better than the dramatic films. (For various reasons, I walked out of “Rid of Me” and “Jesus Henry Christ” and couldn’t get through “Roadie.” One exception is the delightful Norwegian coming-of-ager “Turn Me On, Goddamnit,” a heterosexual “Show Me Love” that hits all the right notes of humor and teen angst, and delivers one of the best lines in recent memory: “I know this might sound trivial to someone on death-row…”)
I also want to single out “The Bully Project,” which is good, but not great, structurally weak, but affective, nonetheless, and “Catching Hell,” Alex Gibney’s totally engrossing examination of how the media and sports fans create scapegoats to account for devastating losses (though he might consider trimming his reaction shots).
For now, though, I’ll focus on “Bombay Beach,” which I’ve been trying to wrap my head around ever since watching it on Friday. A lyrical documentary that plays fast and loose with nonfiction conventions, combining bracing verite footage of abject poverty with buoyant, choreographed dance and fantasy sequences, the film shows off the most disturbing aspects of its marginalized protagonists and their indomitable spirit. Living on the coast of the destitute Salton Sea, a once hyped ’60s resort destination that the filmmaker eludes to only briefly in the beginning through archival footage, the characters endure an interminably fringe existence with little to occupy themselves, picking over dead fish, playing videogames and just hanging out amid the rubble.
In the case of the Parrish family, the core of the film, that once meant also arming themselves with a major cache of weaponry and enacting mock battles. After being arrested, imprisoned, and had their children taken away, the family has since regrouped, and trying to make a legit go of it. Most heartbreaking is their youngest son, who may be suffering from mental disorders, and thus gets loaded up with drugs, from Risperdal to Ritalin to Lithium. And yet, director Alma Har’el manages not to pity or condescend to these people, not the child who appears to have little hope for escape, or a wizened elderly desert survivor who lives in a trailer and rides around on an ATV, or the African American aspiring football player who goes to a nearby high school. She seems to legitimately present their needs and dreams.
But there is a major risk in “Bombay Beach” of exoticizing these eccentric poor folk. I’m pretty sure that Har’el falls consistently on the side of empathy over exploitation. (She certainly knows what she’s doing. At one point, some kids have a little discussion about “class” — “like a gentleman,” explains a little girl.) But I imagine there may well be doubters out there. I also think you could say that the film is a little naive or irresponsible to wholeheartedly embrace the characters’ existence as life-affirming. The scenes of kids dancing, playing and enjoying themselves — in spite of their wretched conditions — certainly buoys the film and gives it life and energy, but the reality of their situation is far from such fun. It’s this paradox that makes “Bombay Beach” a thrilling, unpredictable film to experience. I still don’t know what to make of it.