Burning Cane (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Southern lives stuck in anger and despair

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“Burning Cane”, which won two awards including the Founders Prize when it was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival early in this year, is a small but remarkable work to be appreciated. Although this is the first feature film of a very young filmmaker, the movie palpitates with the vivid and authentic sense of places and people, and I had no trouble at all in letting myself absorbed into the gloomy daily life of the main characters of the film.

The movie opens with the long but mesmerizing monologue spoken by Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers), a middle-aged African American woman who rambles on how she has tried to take care of her dog’s serious skin disease many times without much success. She tried a series of different methods recommended by people around her, but her dog’s condition got only worsened, and she did not want to take it to a veterinary because she knew she would be only recommended to do a mercy killing.

Although this monologue of hers does not seem to signify anything at first, it gradually comes to resonate with a problem involved with her adult son Daniel (Dominique McClellan), who has been mired in alcohol at his residence since he became unemployed some time ago. Whenever his wife is absent for her work, he is supposed to take care of their little young son Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly), but, not so surprisingly, he mostly neglects his domestic duty, and he even gives his son a glass of whiskey just for putting him to sleep before his wife returns.

While it is apparent that he is approaching to the bottom of alcoholism, Daniel is not particularly willing to stop drinking, and his anger and resentment generated from his wounded male ego are accumulated day by day as he drinks more and more. In the end, there comes a moment when he happens to clash with his wife over a petty matter, and his life consequently goes down into more anger and despair without any visible hope on the horizon.

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As reflected by a small conversation scene between Daniel and his mother early in the film, David resembles his dead father more than he thinks, and we subsequently comes to see how the toxic culture of masculinity has been maintained in his neighborhood via patriarchy coupled with Christian belief, which is mainly represented by Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce). Whenever he is at his pulpit, Reverend Tillman often emphasizes the importance of God, faith, and family to his parishioners, and he certainly impresses them a lot with your average fire and brimstone summon, but, as Helen tells us, he is actually a weak man who cannot help himself in front of several vices including drinking and domestic violence.

Once its main characters are fully established, the movie calmly observes how things get worse for them bit by bit. Daniel cannot hide his unemployed status from his mother anymore, and Helen eventually takes away Jeremiah from him after coming to learn about what happened between her son and his wife, but she does not know what to do with her son’s worsening circumstance, which culminates to an urgent moment later in the story.

Helen seeks for some advice from Reverent Tillman, but he does not help or advise her much as approaching to his own bottom just like Daniel. Frustrated with the diminishing number of his parishioners, he drives himself further into anger, self-pity, and alcohol, and he does not stop at all even after a rather embarrassing incident, while continuing to throw hollow words about morals and family values as usual.

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Leisurely moving from one episodic moment to another, the movie slowly immerses us into its mundane but realistic Southern background which often draws our attention with considerable local atmosphere and details. Although there are not many other people in the film besides its four main characters, the movie is constantly filled with the palpable rhythm of daily life thanks to the competent direction of director/writer/cinematographer/co-editor Phillip Youmans, and there are a number of commendable moments to be admired for thoughtful camera work and scene composition. For example, I like several key scenes which emphasize the constant instability surrounding the characters in the film via tilted camera angle, and I also enjoyed occasional landscape shots filled with the green color of sugar canes.

Youmans also draws good natural performances from his main cast members. While Wendell Pierce, who has been one of my favorite character actors since he drew my attention for the first time via his colorful supporting performances in HBO TV drama series “The Wire” and “Treme”, is compelling as a flawed but complex man of God, Karen Kaia Livers, who also participated in the production of the film along with Pierce, ably holds the center as required, and Dominique McClellan has his own moments during his several scenes with young actor Braelyn Kelly, who is poignant as an innocent boy who will bound to be influenced by his harsh and despairing world in one way or another.

Although it requires some patience due to its rather slow narrative pacing, “Burning Cane” is a rewarding experience, and, considering that Youmans is only 19 at present, its overall achievement is all the more amazing to say the least. As far as I can see from the film, he is a promising new talent full of potentials, and it will be really interesting to see what will come from him during the next decade.

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