REVIEW: Gorgeous Doc Bombay Beach Seems Earnest But Raises Questions of Exploitation
Where does appreciation end and exploitation begin? Gorgeous and disquieting, the documentary Bombay Beach wobbles between the two like a beginner gymnast on her first attempt on the balance beam. On one side, it's a poetic, freeform examination of the lives of a few of the residents of the area of the title, located by the Salton Sea in the Southern California desert. On the other, it's an uncomfortable fetishization of the community's outsider status, dictated by poverty, by location and by an inability or unwillingness to exist elsewhere. Israeli-born director Alma Har'el, who comes from a background of music videos and commercials, doesn't just bask in this abundance of scenic, decaying Americana, she shapes it into choreographed dance interludes with the subjects, who twirl outside their mobile homes and don carnival masks to cavort in an outdoor gazebo. It's a bit of whimsy as pretty and problematic as the film as a whole.
There's no question of what drew Har'el to Bombay Beach's setting, which is almost otherworldly and ripely cinematic. On the edge of the inland sea, the remote, half-abandoned community has the look of a group of survivors of some apocalyptic event. The film starts with old promotional footage from decades ago touting the area's destiny as the next California paradise ("The future is now!"), a place for resorts and recreation and a more traditional type of escape, before cutting to the fallen reality, the few dilapidated homes and businesses remaining today, and slowly finding its way to the three characters it will follow -- the elderly Red, who lives in the Slab City trailer encampment and gets by bootlegging discount cigarettes; Benny Parrish, a boy who's been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; and CeeJay Thompson, a black teenager from L.A. who's been sent to the area to get away from the gang violence that claimed the life of his cousin.
Part of what makes Bombay Beach such prime fuel for arguments about hipster appropriation is its impressively chic pedigree. Some of Har'el's most well-known and acclaimed music videos are for Zach Condon and his band Beirut, original music from whom figures prominently on the soundtrack. There are also songs from Bob Dylan, and an enthusiastic endorsement from Terry Gilliam adorns the top of the official website. There's nothing malicious in the film's gaze -- I have no doubt that Har'el has sincerely fallen in love with her subjects and the region -- but that doesn't negate the way the film doesn't observe, it palpably imposes a thesis upon these people, about the crumbled American dream, about the nobility of existence on the outskirts, using them as material for an idea in a way that speaks more to the filmmaker than to who they are. What kind of obligation a documentarian has to his or her subjects can be the center of an interesting if endless debate, and Bombay Beach regardless has no aims to be any sort of traditional nonfiction film, but there's still something squirmy in its vision, the way that it continually flirts with condescending to what it would lift up.
Bombay Beach does include some unforgettable imagery, much of it shot toward dusk when the desert has cooled and when the washed-out colors of the landscape blend into the vast sky and the reflecting water. CeeJay and his friend noodle around in a golf cart looking for something to do and talking about the future -- he hopes to get a football scholarship, but his pal wonders what would happen if he just stayed put and became a bum. "I'd find you and I'd take care of you, no homo," CeeJay tells him. Red and his friends, many wizened and shirtless, have a cookout in Slab City, as one woman massages a bowl of limp, grayish lettuce. "That is a salad," her friend declares.
But it's to little Benny that the film's heart belongs -- an adorable kid who seems to live only half in this world and the rest of the time in his own imagination, Benny's on a regimen of Ritalin and Lithium and other meds that sometimes leave him even dreamier than is his norm, and while his mother frets over these side effects she also abides by what the doctor tells her, not having any other choice. She and her husband once had a fondness for setting off explosives and an extreme avoidance of housekeeping -- the former landed them in jail, the latter got their children taken away for a while, and she's clearly trying her hardest to parent according to rules she's had to teach herself. (When she tells her oldest daughter she was 15 when she first got pregnant, the girl says "I finally know what age you were" -- it's a puzzle she's been exploring for a while in the face of deflections.) We don't see the problems Benny's caused that led to his diagnosis, and his drugged up daze and earnest plea to his teacher that "I hope I behave" are extra heartbreaking because of it. Benny's playing out in the desert on a beached ship or in a fantasy sequence involving a fire truck are some of the only moments he seems fully himself, and they're the least forceful and most magnetic instances of Bombay Beach's Harmony Korine-esque tributes to the concept of the beautiful freaks.