Dumbarton Bridge” weaves themes of identity, ethnicity and belonging through a story of a Vietnam vet confronted by the daughter he left behind after the war. Despite an ambitious, at times touching story, this first feature from writer-director Charles Koppelman has pacing and character problems that are difficult to overlook. Still, its universal themes should earn it further visibility on the festival circuit.
Protagonist John Shed (Tom Wright) leads a withdrawn and solitary existence in a small community south of San Francisco where he works on the salt ponds. The African-American Shed takes little pleasure in life, rarely venturing out with his white live-in girlfriend, Belinda (Daphne Ashbrook).
When Minh (Esperanza Catubig), Shed’s half-Vietnamese daughter, unexpectedly arrives, Shed reacts with callous disregard for her welfare. Belinda invites Minh to live with them, but Shed, who’s uncomfortable in his own skin, can offer the girl no fatherly affection. Shed’s bitterness and heavy drinking prompt Belinda to move out.
Through a series of difficult steps, father and daughter come to terms with their own, and each other’s, ethnicity, and find ways to reassert their identity. A black man who has always refused to connect with other men of his own race, Shed finally accepts the advice of his white friend Jack (Leo Burmester), and meets with a group of local blacks. One of the best conceits of the picture, the all-black support group, adds needed levity and perspective to the otherwise ponderous and torpid proceedings. And Minh finds her own sense of belonging with the help of a Vietnamese-American social worker (Art Desuyo) with whom she becomes romantically involved.
As Minh, Catubig has a forceful, empathetic presence that effectively counterbalances Shed’s chilly demeanor. Wright gives such a restrained performance that it’s difficult to gauge his character’s psychological and emotional journey. In a part that is either underwritten or over-cut, Shed is relegated to scene after scene of drinking and self-destructive behavior. Only when he begins to find a sense of brotherhood does he allow himself to rediscover his love for music and, eventually, his sense of joy.
Music, specifically jazz and blues, is integral to the film, often establishing mood and tone more effectively than dialogue or mise-en-scene. Well-chosen tracks by John Coltrane, Art Neville and the Blue Mitchell Sextet are among the film’s best and most memorable elements. Barry Stone’s lensing has a spare, direct quality that occasionally yields to a more mystical approach in which the salt hills of the peninsula seem to morph into the rice fields of Vietnam.