An inverted look at the “American Dream”, Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach is a beautifully constructed work, ground in emotionally resonating touches that cannot fail to effect and inspire. From the films opening sequence, which incorporates old promotion videos of the vacation resort that the man-made Bombay Beach once was, to the numerous music promo video-esque vignettes that punctuate the picture, Har’el’s film is an eclectic work of genuinely profound beauty. A feeling of eerie beauty bounces around the picture, with the landscape, littered by dead animals and lit by fireworks, quite literally the centre of the universe for the denizens of the area (its notable that every locale outside of Bombay Beach is measured in terms of the vicinity/ distance from the titular site).
Slab City, a location previously brought to life on-screen in Sean Penn’s Into The Wild, is home to a number of interesting characters. To say the least. Focussing on Red, an old man and life long drifter, we see the world through his eyes, with a surprising poetic streak running throughout his observations. The people surrounding Red are nothing short of misfits, but a Goddamn joyful bunch of misfits. Every single person in the film looks like they have a story to tell, their rugged appearance bearing as many a tease in to a life lived as any of the monologues shared. How do these people end up out there? Why would anyone want to be out there? Some are bound by hereditary situation, while others are brought to the dunes by misfortune, or because they are running away from something. CeeJay falls in to the latter camp. A black teenager attempting to avoid the fate that befell his gangbanger cousin, with aspirations of one day playing football for the NFL, CeeJay is somewhat indicative of a great deal of the people who have taken up residency by the Salton Sea, in that he displays a great determination and hope in the face of the situation they’ve found themselves in.
Benny Parrish is perhaps the ultimate icon of this candid, spontaneous attitude to life. A bi-polar young boy being brought up in the most dysfunctional of scenarios, Benny is something of a beacon of naïve optimism in the face of the adversities enforced. By the time the credits roll Benny has become an hyper-medicated zombie, a shadow of his former self, failed not only by his parents (although they themselves are arguably trying their best to raise their kids responsibly, in as much as they are barely capable of doing so), but also by the government systems put in place to supposedly help such people. Doctors mis-diagnose the boy to the point of seizure, and are unwilling to reappraise his wellbeing for whatever reason. At times the sight of Benny wandering around the salt desert, clambering around the corpses of dead animals and abandoned trash reminds of Harmony Korine’s Gummo, yet while one could at least take respite safe in the knowledge that Korine’s work was fictional the same can obviously not be said of the situations faced here in Bombay Beach.
Alas, the genuinely unbelievable story of the Parrish family extends far beyond Benny. As the story of Benny’s parents unravels via old home videos, we are given an insight into a story that is difficult to believe is borne out of reality. In the earlier years of the 21st Century Benny’s parents were arrested and imprisoned on laws brought in to effect following the events of 9/11. Having built their own makeshift army, apparently in response to the lack of government support in the area, the pair’s makeshift bombs saw them branded terrorists by the establishment, and sentenced to several years in jail.
As mentioned afore, the film is punctuated by a couple of designed vignettes, each one scored to a specific music track. Bob Dylan and Zachary “Beirut” Condon provide the audio, with Condon’s appearance reminding of Har’el’s beginnings as a director of music videos (most notably perhaps for Beirut’s Elephant Gun). While the constructed nature of the vignettes goes against the general rules of the documentary, they manage to feel legitimate enough, and downright poetic in parts, for one not to be drawn in wholly. The final vignette is especially moving.
Ultimately though, Bombay Beach reminds the viewer of the vastness of America, and the manner in which, even in the country that is the poster boy for Western society, some people still manage to slip through the cracks. Masterpiece doesn’t even begin to cover it.