The unusual and visually arresting documentary "Bombay Beach" offers a unique slice-of-life approach to its subjects that makes for an intimacy and immediacy that is quite unexpected. As the Salton Sea area of California evolved from an upscale tourist resort in the fifties to near desolation sixty years later, I anticipated that this was to be a document of that downward transitioning. It's not, however. So anyone expecting a traditional documentary feature about the area and its history is sure to be disappointed. But that's not to say that the film is a complete write-off, far from it. It just may not meet your initial expectations, but offers something even more rewarding. It showcases a world of isolationism, poverty, and decay that is haunting, disturbing, and undeniably memorable. The citizens that still inhabit the area are an eclectic group. Many might be considered societal misfits, some are just struggling to rebuild their lives, and some are striving for success and opportunity beyond the Salton Sea.
"Bombay Beach" follows three residents (or families) that live in the area. One family has lived on the fringes of society for many years, coming up on the wrong side of the law and child welfare services as often as not. They, however, are attempting a new leaf. One participant is an elderly hard-living gentleman who thrives in this impoverished community--reflecting back on his early years, but relishing every day he has left. He is very popular as a purveyor of convenient smokes. And the third subject is a high school student who escaped the gangland dangers of Los Angeles to have a more solid and safer start. He dreams of utilizing his experiences as the star of the small local football team to capture NFL glory. While the portrait of these individuals may not always be flattering due to the circumstances of how they live, they are eminently real and relatable. And even if their prospects appear bleak, there is no lack of hope or joy in their existence. This is truly a refreshing viewpoint.
Much of the film is done in a cinema verite, fly-on-the-wall approach. But some of the sequences are staged to music (songs by the band Beirut and Bob Dylan) This, at times, gives the film an oddly surreal feeling. This mix of juxtaposed tones is quite unexpected and really resonated with me. But it is the film's photography that really stands out. As the camera pans across deserted beaches, abandoned homes, and collecting refuse--the movie quietly says more about the death of the American Dream than a dozen speeches could convey. It's haunting and impactful in a very understated way, allowing the viewer to interpret the film in very personal ways. Ultimately, maybe "Bombay Beach" is not for everyone. That's okay. But for those interested in sociology, this experimental portrait of people on the fringe offers much insight. KGHarris, 1/12.