A compelling 78-minute snapshot of Southern poverty and grief, 19-year-old director Phillip Youmans’ debut “Burning Cane” hovers in textures more than plot. Aprofound sermon by the newly widowed Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce) follows the soulful voiceover of lonely mother Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), who worries about her aging dog and alcoholic son Daniel (Dominique McClellan). With those concerns established in the opening minutes, the movie moves on to its central concerns, cycling through lyrical exchanges and a wondrous sense of its remote African-American community over the course of this trim cinematic tone poem, which has just enough polish to be a major calling card.
It also suggests a filmmaker with lofty ambitions. The spirit of Terrence Malick hovers over much of “Burning Cane,” much in the same way it did with David Gordon Green’s debut “George Washington,” with poetic images of green-tinted fields and inquisitive narration drifting across many scenes. But Youmans doesn’t fixate on the awe-inspiring visuals as much as he uses them to convey the desperation of his small ensemble, and it’s here that the movie’s true strengths come into focus.
“Burning Cane” unfolds in gripping fragments, like flipping through a lookbook of powerful glances: Here’s the reverend issuing a fiery indictment to his congregation of superficial desires; there’s Daniel, in melancholic, blue-hued close-up, professing to Helen that he’ll never match up to the expectations of his father. Helen seems at a loss in her attempts to keep the men around her in line: She fails to keep the reverend from driving intoxicated as he speeds off from the church in a huff, only to find himself at her mercy moments later. And when Daniel struggles to suppress his own alcoholic rage, losing his job and taking his fury out on his wife, Helen’s forced to confront a moral conflict no amount of spiritual convictions can resolve.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin served as an executive producer on “Burning Cane,” which may lead some to see an aesthetic throughline there. But while Zeitlin’s fantastical New Orleans epic envisioned a dreamlike variation on its swampy setting, “Burning Cane” develops a more hypnotic, near-mystical quality as it digs into the confines of an insular world defined by haunting beauty and malaise at once.
Pierce, who has somehow remained one of our most underrated actors in the aftermath of “The Wire,” exudes a grand sense of sorrow and resignation even as he carries his faith with him through the most dire of circumstances. When the drama arrives at a brutal twist in the closing moments, he delivers a somber, biblically inspired monologue that epitomizes the movie’s ability to convey the stasis of a world tied to tradition and family values even as they chart a path to self-destruction.
Youmans’ delicate framings suggest the restless eye of a film student looking to show off in every frame, but what an eye: At one key moment, his camera lingers on Helen’s face for moments on end, allowing the terror and sadness that no words can convey to gradually accumulate in the room. In another pivotal moment, Daniel screams into the phone about losing his job, while his young child sits int he foreground, in a beguiling snippet of mise-en-scene encapsulating the movie’s fixation on indescribable frustrations that reverberate across generations.
For all these striking moments, “Burning Cane” can’t shake the feeling of a sketchbook loaded with ideas that could use more fleshing out. (One weary, prolonged scene near the end, when a character watches several minutes of “The Jungle Book,” asks way too much with minimal payoff.) Some movies shouldn’t be seen in the context of their creators, but “Burning Cane” benefits from consideration as an impressive first stab at conveying a nascent director’s grand vision. It has the outlines of a great cinematic achievement, and with its gripping, tragic finale, provides a convincing argument for why Youmans could very well deliver one in the near future.
“Burning Cane” premiered in the U.S. Narrative Competition at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.