It would be difficult to review a polished feature film by a high-schooler (who started production between his junior and senior years, and finished around graduation) without marveling at the director’s age. It’s harder still when that film is one like Phillip Youmans’ Burning Cane, a pensive, artful feature of a sort we don’t expect young people to be watching, much less making. A Faulknerian look at domestic violence, self-destructiveness and faith set in a small Louisiana town, its cinematic style owes something to Terrence Malick — though this spare, 77-minute debut has none of the meandering self-indulgence of that auteur’s recent work. A trio of Tribeca jury awards in the U.S. Narrative competition — best feature, actor and cinematography — should attract attention to the film, whose nature begs for art house distribution over a streaming debut.
The film begins with a long voiceover, in which a woman we haven’t met yet (Karen Kaia Livers’ Helen) recounts the months she has spent trying every home remedy available to cure her beloved dog of mange. She’s convinced that if she took him to a vet, the doctor would insist on putting the animal down. It’s a puzzling assumption, but one that foreshadows this community’s preference for handling problems itself instead of trusting in the authorities.
Helen is the link between two troubled households. Her son Daniel (Dominique McClellan), currently unemployed, is losing his sense of himself as a man — watching his wife go off to work (and feeling judged by her) as he sits at home keeping their son (newcomer Braelyn Kelly) company. Daniel drinks all day and appears to spike the boy’s milk with whiskey when it’s time for sleep; but he’s affectionate, playing old records and coloring with the child.
The pastor at Helen’s church is also an alcoholic, or at least is currently using the bottle as refuge from marital strife. We watch Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce) stand at the pulpit, sweatier than any congregant, as he speaks about the Devil’s agenda and decries the consumerism of secular America. Youmans leaves a tiny flub or two in his speech, making church scenes more immediate and hinting that the pastor’s flock may be aware of his difficulties, giving him breathing room to get through things on his own. Helen certainly is, though she tries (unsuccessfully) to intervene when Tillman is too drunk to drive to the Piggly Wiggly.
Youmans treats both situations not as stories to tell, but as opportunities for elliptical observation. Serving as his own director of photography, he hovers in rooms filled with uncertainty and doesn’t worry about illuminating the darker details in the frame. Christianity hovers over everything here, but faith seems little comfort to either man — especially Daniel, whose insecurity is compounded by his father’s complicated legacy. The Bible talks about reckonings that will separate wheat from chaff, and Youmans uses a similar metaphor here: burning is part of the annual process of harvesting sugarcane, in which fields are set on fire before, not after, the valuable part of the crop is harvested. As the film moves toward its ambiguous end, it’s unclear which of its figures will remain standing at harvest time.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (US Narrative Competition)
Production company: Denizen Pictures
Cast: Wendell Pierce, Karen Kaia Livers, Dominique McClellan, Braelyn Kelly
Director/screenwriter/director of photography: Phillip Youmans
Producers: Wendell Pierce, Mose Mayer, Ojo Akinlana, Karen Kaia Livers, Cassandra Youmans, Phillip Youmans
Executive producer: Benh Zeitlin
Production designer: Ojo Akinlana
Editors: Phillip Youmans, Ruby Kline
Composer: Kevin Gullage