BEV reviews Bombay Beach, dir. Alma Har el
Bombay Beach is a joyful yet tragic meditation on the American dream from video artist, photographer and music video director Alma Har’el. Awarded Best Documentary at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, the film is predominantly an observational documentary, but also includes some scripted scenes and a few choreographed dance sequences featuring music from Bob Dylan and Beirut.
Filmed around the desolate landscape of Bombay Beach, California, the film presents the lives of three of the town’s inhabitants; a highly imaginative yet lonely young boy, an old man driven by the richness of experience over the accumulation of wealth, and a high school boy working towards a college scholarship; all set against a backdrop of unfulfilled potential and abandoned ambition.
Opening with original footage from the 1950s which hails the town as ‘the new recreational capital of the world,’ the film then snaps back to the present day and shows the reality of what actually came to be; an extremely poor, sparsely populated town which exudes abstraction and neglect.
The lead character is a young boy named Benny Parrish, who is given a daily cocktail of pills by his parents in an attempt to stabilize his behavioural problems. One of the key strengths of the film is the extent to which the viewer becomes involved in Benny’s plight. Audiences will feel a keen sadness for his schoolyard seclusion and troubled upbringing, along with a deep concern for his well-being and an utter frustration with the adult insistence upon his medication. However, as well as establishing Benny as a protagonist to strongly root for, the film uses his situation to examine the startling reality of the increasing amount of young children who are medicated in the US and further explores the validity of the American dream.
Having selected the perfect location for an exploration of the American dream, Har’el refuses to sit idly by and let the desolation speak for itself, instead choosing to capture both the sadness and joy of the environment. Tragic scenes of static seclusion and neglect are juxtaposed with playful guitars, joyous dances and instances of true tenderness. These are shot with a colourful zest and melodic flair which is so rarely associated with this type of venture.
Bombay Beach is a rich, lyrical daydream of a film which features an abundance of beautiful and memorable images. Once entranced by this beauty, the audience will find themselves not only emotionally involved in the lives of its subjects, but engaged in an analysis of the legend of the American dream set against the harsh remnants of its broken promise.