Once a man made vacation spot, the Salton Sea is found in the center of the barren Colorado desert. On it’s Northeastern crest, the poverty stricken town of Bombay Beach can be found. Its minimal population through director Alma Har’el’s lens seems to be a mix of life hardened hillbillies, bomb building parents, and NFL hopefuls. A stranger combo would be hard to conceive. Har’el’s debut film, Bombay Beach, is a wonderful hybrid documentary that follows the lives of three of the town’s troubled citizens while intermixing choreographed dance numbers into the fold to interject desperately needed hope and humor.
The film’s three characters, though living in the same barren town, occupy vastly different social realms. First, we are introduced to Red, a grizzled old oil field retiree who makes a few bucks to get by flipping native cigarettes. Though he’s upbeat, Red has obviously lived a hard life, and as a result possesses an utterly heartbreaking retrospect on life. He’s a bit racist, and completely redneck, but in his odd community he is beloved. Our next protagonist is found in little Benny Parrish, a rambunctious bipolar son of a pair of felons who spent time in jail after explosives were found in their house. Back out in the world, Benny is once again under his parents’ sometimes irresponsible, but always loving care. Infused with the extreme excitement and crippling depression that accompanies bipolar disorder, Benny possesses the wonderment that any young kid would, even in a situation so dire. Lastly, we find CeeJay Thompson, one of the few African American teens living in the rural town. CeeJay moved to Bombay Beach from Los Angeles following the gang related death of his cousin. He dreams of playing in the NFL, and needed to get away from the temptations of trouble to focus on school and football practice in order to score a scholarship. Boredom permeates the lives of Bombay Beach’s inhabitants, but friendship, love interests, family and fishing help keep their days interesting.
Like the town in which these people live, not much happens in Bombay Beach. Almost like friendly neighbors, we are introduced to the cast, we learn how they ended up in such a god forsaken town, and just as we start to get to know the film’s incredibly personable subjects, they inevitably leave us. Alma Har’el’s background as a creator of music videos shines through visually in her fascination in the little things like body movements or facial expressions, and her well meshed insertion of choreographed dances that, though obviously planned, come off feeling in rhythm with the natural flow of the story. These sections reveal a sense of hope and human connection, almost redeeming the depressed area if only for that three to four minute moment set to a well used high profile soundtrack that boasts names like Bob Dylan and Beirut. Har’el’s debut shows distinct potential with beautiful cinematography, an unconventional knack for storytelling, and an unveiling of harrowing humanity in an economically devastated town symbolically nestled on the dead fish covered shores of the Salton Sea.
2011 Sheffield Doc/Fest