Cambridge Film Festival Review: Bombay Beach

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The Pitch: The Beach Boys: The Lost Generations.

The Review: There are plenty of stereotypes that come to mind when one thinks of America; from the brash New Yorker to the ultra-hip Californian, American ways of life vary more often than time zones as you move from east to west. Attempting to define an American way of life isn’t easy, but Bombay Beach is a unique documentary which attempts to give insight into the lives of average Americans who have one thing in common – they are living in a run-down, almost forgotten backwater (pop. 260) where the American dream seems to be closer to a nightmare.

The 1% of the Beach’s inhabitants that we do follow each have their own problems. The youngest, Benny, comes from a family who’ve had more than the odd run-in with the law and Benny’s mother is doing her best to balance the medications prescribed to moderate his youthful recklessness. CeeJay is a school student hoping to be the first in his family to make it to college, after being sent away from the violence surrounding his Los Angeles home. The eldest of the three, Red, is eking out his final years in the crumbling surroundings with the support of others but  still has the odd indulgence to make his later life enjoyable.

The stories of these three and their friends and families reflect a lot of what we think we know about America – as well as the mundanity of middle America being taken to extremes, the stories give insight into the everything from the prescription drug culture to the gun culture which blights the US, but attempts to put it into the context of the regular lives of these small-town folk. Director Alma Har’el spent a year chronicling the lives of the residents of this failed resort and is never afraid to get up close and personal with her subjects, getting the camera right into people’s faces and eavesdropping on fights and tantrums in an attempt to understand what makes them tick. Despite the shabby surroundings, all three subjects seem keen to make the best of their lot in life  and their story is one as much of hope as it is of destitution.

Emphasising that hope, Har’el has each of her subjects take part in a choreographed dance routine. Using the music of Zach Condon and Bob Dylan and the various dance routines, Bombay Beach is transformed from measured to magical, as if Har’el has managed to capture the very essence or soul of her subjects. Har’el doesn’t attempt to draw too many conclusions, instead allowing the viewer to make up their own mind, and that allows the more extravagent touches to be at their most effective. The setting might be bleak, but somehow it serves to inspire both its residents and the filmmaker and Bombay Beach is a moving, thought-provoking and uplifting snapshot of life on the poverty line in the American heartland.

Why see it in the cinema: Not only for the fantastic use of the desolate landscapes, but also the intimate character work which makes great use of the wide screen, and plenty of humour to share in the mix as well.

The Score: 8/10

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