‘Burning Bodhi’: Film Review

Courtesy of Monterey Media
Doesn’t quite hit the emotional sweet spot.

Childhood friends reunite for a funeral in a New Mexico-set ensemble drama.

As one character in Burning Bodhi puts it, “I guess it’s a rite of passage … our first dead friend.” And The Big Chill–esque ensemble pieces, bringing together old pals to mourn the deceased and reopen old wounds, has become a rite of moviegoing passage for every generation. Matthew McDuffie’s Millennial-angst spin on that time-tested setup is an uneven affair, but some sharply written dialogue and a solid cast, including TV-familiar faces, help it to rise above cliché. Segueing to home video in April after a limited theatrical run, the drama won’t set the world on fire, but young adults might find resonance in the material.

As two twentysomethings who haven’t left their home turf of Albuquerque, Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory) and Cody Horn (Magic Mike) lend oomph to the low-key proceedings with their nuanced performances. Horn’s Ember is the seemingly free spirit who sends out word that high school friend Bodhi has died, and who’s organizing the unfortunately named “FUN-eral” that will celebrate his life. Even while suffering through a relationship with a girlfriend who refuses to be monogamous, Ember’s the one who buoys her friends’ spirits.

She convinces the reluctant Dylan (Hemlock Grove's Landon Liboiron) to make the trip home from Chicago, where he’s an aspiring cartoonist — although little is made of that as matters of love and sex take center stage. Dylan has unfinished emotional business on several fronts: with his split-up hippieish parents (Virginia Madsen and Andy Buckley, both touchingly vulnerable); with Bodhi; with Lauren (Meghann Fahy), the girlfriend he left in Chicago who will, of course, hop a flight west to confront him; and with his high school ex, Katy (Cuoco). It’s no wonder that he’s put off a return visit until now; “If I miss Albuquerque,” he tells Ember, “I just watch Breaking Bad.”

With her high-voltage eye makeup, arrest record and “drug bunny” habits, Katy could have been a walking trailer-park stereotype. But in Cuoco’s sensitive turn, this troubled single mom is a full-blooded character — even through the inevitable moment when she removes the glitter eyeshadow to signal her fresh start.

Screenwriter McDuffie (The Face of Love) directs his first feature with a feel for the edge-of-the-city working-class milieu, with its heavy air of disappointment and stunted dreams. Through d.p. David J. Myrick’s strong compositions and the design contributions of Christopher Hall and Shaun Garcia, he communicates the beauty of the Southwestern summer without getting precious. But he should have applied similar restraint with Ian Hultquist’s gentle score, whose overuse proves counterproductive.

The story, too, drifts in and out of focus. Amid the sorting out of entanglements past and present, a subplot involving returning friend Miguel (Eli Vargas) and the California-bound pregnant hitcher (Sasha Pieterse) he brings to the funeral is mildly diverting but mainly feels tacked-on. As for the other romantic threads, they’re not always persuasive. Festering emotions about years-old hookups and betrayals feel overstated. And though McDuffie choreographs a late-night text-message exchange between Dylan and Katy to good effect, the film could have used a few less sequences that rely on typing thumbs and broody gazes at smartphone screens.

But the director and his cast tap into the characters’ limbo between childhood and adulthood — most potently when Ember, Dylan and Katy hesitate to enter the funeral home for Bodhi’s viewing, instead watching from a safe, judgmental distance as mourners come and go. The “fun-eral” itself proves woefully anticlimactic, but McDuffie takes a chance by interweaving strikingly shot footage of the cremation process. It’s a gamble that pays off, and makes you wish that more of the story had burned as fiercely.

Distributor: Monterey Media
Production companies: Honey Bear, Best Possible Worlds
Cast: Kaley Cuoco, Cody Horn, Landon Liboiron, Sasha Pieterse, Eli Vargas, Andy Buckley, Virginia Madsen, Meghann Fahy
Director-screenwriter: Matthew McDuffie
Producer: Marshall Bear
Executive producers: Michael Lazo, Heather A. Clark, Mary Vernieu, James C. Katz
Director of photography: David J. Myrick
Production designer: Christopher Hall
Costume designer: Shaun Garcia
Editor: Benjamin Callahan
Composer: Ian Hultquist
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham

Rated R, 95 minutes