Bombay Beach | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Alma Har’el, USA, 2011, 80 mins

Review by Carlie Newman

Har’el’s documentary gives us a good picture of some of the 100 people living in one of the poorest communities in southernCalifornia. In the 1950s this was part of the American dream: a new development and vacation destination located on the shores of theSalton Sea, a man-made sea in the middle of theColorado Desert.

Director Alma Har'el focuses on the stories of three of the inhabitants of this run-down area. We first meet Benny Parrish, who became “difficult” and “different” when he was returned to his parents after their prison sentences. At only three weeks he was taken away and fostered for two years. Now (probably suffering from bipolar disorder) he finds it hard to fit in at school and with his playmates. His family were originally investigated for having a dirty house and neglecting their children but then his father, Mike, was found to have an arsenal of weapons and small bombs. Refused entry to the army because of his lack of educational qualifications, he developed a hobby of filming his explosions. Unfortunately his wife was taken into custody as well.

The parents are trying to turn their lives around and do their best for their kids, particularly Benny, who is taken to a variety of doctors and consultants. He is given Ritalin to calm him down. When he develops petit mal seizures he is given more drugs. Although they have little to offer, the family now appear loving and caring.

Then we have CeeJay Thompson, a black teenager who has moved toBombayBeachformLos Angeleswhere the murder of his cousin by a gang of youths made him determined to get away from the violence and drugs of the big city. He wants to play professional football and has come to live inBombayBeachfull of hope. If he can win a football scholarship then he will be the first in his family to go to college. We see him fall in love and witness the courtship rituals of the young couple including a lyrical dance where the teenagers wear white masks.

Finally an old man, Red, smoking constantly, remembers his past life, and the wife and children that he hasn’t seen for many years. Born inKansas, Red left home at 13 to go and work in the oil fields. From then he has spent his life living in many different places, travelling around in his trailer. Now living atBombayBeach, he has found an Indian reservation where he can buy cigarettes without tax. He then sells these on atSlabCity, 24 miles fromBombaybeach. After suffering a “baby stroke” Red finds himself carted off to hospital, but fights to return home.

Har’el spent four months living in the local community and she has certainly given us an in-depth study of the residents she has documented in her film. She uses music – by singer Zach Condon and his bandBeirutand Bob Dylan – and there are some choreographed dances which blend seamlessly into the rest of the documentary. The one thing that lets the film down is the sound, in some places so bad that the film uses subtitles. Unfortunately at other times – whether because of the quality of the sound or the lack of clarity of the speakers’ voices – it is difficult to understand what they are saying. This is a pity as the film has a number of interesting things to say about poor communities inAmerica, the health service and living in a close community.