out of Five
Running time: 80
Director Alma Har'el has fused the small-town documentary with a music video sensibility to create something breathtakingly original and genuinely beautiful.
What's it all about?
Directed by Alma Har'el, Bombay Beach is a documentary that's set in the Bombay Beach community of Salton Sea, California in the Colorado Desert. Once a thriving holiday destination, sold as “Palm Springs by-the-sea” (and just two hours drive north of Los Angeles), Salton Sea is now a desolate, run-down community on the side of a dead-fish encrusted saltwater lake.
Har'el focusses on three members of the community in particular: hyperactive 10 year old Benny Parrish, who's on constantly changing medication for bi-polar disorder and whose parents, Mike and Pamela were once imprisoned for their fondness for playing around with explosives; sweet-natured teenager CeeJay, who moved to Bombay Beach in order to get away from the gang culture in South Central L.A and who hopes the new community will improve his chances of a football career; and ageing chain-smoking redneck Dorran “Red” Forgy, who lives in an RV, sells bootleg cigarettes and survives a serious bout of ill health. However, alongside some extraordinarily intimate observations of her subjects' day-to-day lives, Har'el also includes a number of dream-like dance sequences, the highlight of which features bullied Benny fighting back against some neighbourhood kids.
Har'el's decision to include dance sequences with non-dancers sounds extremely dubious on paper, but the effect in the film is extraordinary, at once hypnotic, moving and, in the case of Benny, laugh-out-loud funny. The result is a film that is quite unlike anything you've ever seen before.
The characters and their various stories are extremely engaging (Red is so likeable that you even find yourself excusing his somewhat out-dated views on various topics), particularly CeeJay, who finds love with a girl named Jessie (whose ex-boyfriend actually blackmails her on camera in a scene that appears staged but – at least according to Har'el – apparently wasn't). It's clear from the film that Har'el has genuine affection for her cast of misfits and outsiders and this affection is highly infectious.
On top of that, the landscapes are utterly gorgeous, with Har'el's cinematography making strong use of some stunning locations. There's also a terrific and highly effective soundtrack that includes songs from both Bob Dylan and Beirut (a band for whom Har'el has directed several music videos).
By turns fascinating, heartbreaking, exhilarating and laugh-out loud funny, Bombay Beach is an extraordinary and breathtakingly original film that demands to be seen. Unmissable.