May 16, 2019
‘Burning Cane’ Review: A Hypnotic Southern Fable That Burns Itself Into Your Memory [Tribeca]
Burning Cane is a movie that flows over you: It’s less a structured narrative than a series of arcane images, each more beguiling and haunting than the last. The film, which deservedly won the Founders Award for best narrative feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, is an incredible debut for a 19-year-old filmmaker just out of high school — Burning Cane feels like the product of decades lived, of tragedies untold. But Phillip Youmans, who made this film at the age of 17 with Benh Zeitlin of Beasts of the Southern Wild as executive producer, proves to be an assured director who beautifully delivers a sprawling, hypnotic Southern Gothic drama about the last gasp of a disappearing world.
A weary, chain-smoking elderly woman (Karen Kaia Livers) agonizes over her mange-ridden family dog. Her unemployed alcoholic son (Dominique McClellan) drifts through life while his wife (Emyri Crutchfield) gets fed up with supporting him and their son. An alcoholic preacher (a magnetic Wendell Pierce of The Wire) grapples with his religion in a rapidly changing world that is uncaring of his wife’s recent death. All together they make up the rich tapestry that is Burning Cane, Youman’s resplendent ode to the Black South.
It’s hard to describe exactly what the narrative of Burning Cane is. It’s a series of vignettes following these three individuals, who quietly shuffle through a life is stacked against them. Daniel, the unemployed alcoholic father who spends days in a dank, darkened room drinking and feeding his young son whisky, is probably the closest to the protagonist of the film. Happier days with his son and wife are briefly shown, but he soon spirals further and further into a self-destructive lethargy. When his worried mother Helen tries to snap him out by calling him a deadbeat, he cries and defensively yells, “They been out to get me since day one.” Daniel finds no reprieve in the faith that his mother has and that Pierce’s preacher has lost, and ultimately becomes the film’s lost soul that cannot be saved.
There’s a curiously anachronistic feeling to this film, despite being set in contemporary America. In one scene, Helen butchers a chicken with a grimy machete and talks about the home remedies she’s tried for her dog — listing everything from hydrogen peroxide, honey, vegetable oil — while a radio blares a modern pop song. In another, Daniel plays an old record of a blues singer playing guitar and singing “hot tomatoes and the red hot,” while his son draws in a comic book. And in another, Pierce’s preacher, Reverend Tillman opines against the transgender movement as he recovers from a drunken bender while standing against a sea of swaying sugarcane stalks. Burning Cane looks and feels timeless, like it could take place in either the 1800s or current day. It’s a fable for the modern day — a snapshot of a world that is both familiar and unfamiliar, both a microcosm of the greater world and a cautionary tale.
Youmans brings a lyrical and, yes, Terrence Malickian style to his direction, which paints a dreamlike vision of a small southeastern Louisiana town riddled with abuse and despair. While the film’s slow pace and meandering narrative does make Burning Cane hard to follow and its themes a little opaque, Youmans’ eye for crafting indelible, mesmerizing images are what elevate Burning Cane to a higher, near transcendent level. One such image recalls the film’s title: the towering sugar cane looks and feels like a wall around the world and the stories it contains.
Burning Cane is a slow-burning slice of life story in all its naked, sweaty glory, centered on a small town that feels lost to the sea of time. At once small and vast, Burning Cane captures a feeling of hopelessness that embodies Black America.
/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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