Israeli musicvideo helmer Alma Har’el is hardly the first to recognize the Salton Sea as a poetic reflection of where the American Dream goes to die, though her intriguingly non-standard docu “Bombay Beach” captures the fading California community’s white-trash denizens with a fresh eye and deeper sensitivity than most who have come before. In an inspired twist, Har’el brings surreal levity to the potentially downer subject by interrupting her elegiac regional portraiture with a series of amateur dance numbers. Still, without dramatic momentum, this fringe-appeal snapshot feels less like a film than a coffee-table photo project come to life.
“Beach” opens with a vintage promotional filmstrip borrowed from directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, whose “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” took a more conventional look at those who’ve bought into the area’s dubious inland oasis fantasy. In the ’60s, real-estate developers used such claims to lure families to this high-saline drainage basin located roughly 50 miles south of Palm Springs — their sales pitch a stark contrast with the imagery Har’el finds there today: the rotting skeletons of dead animals laid out in the baking desert sun, surrounded by abandoned buildings and other rusting relics of an earlier art-deco heyday.
Fashioning the film from a series of striking shallow-focus compositions collected over nearly a year in the desert, Har’el focuses primarily on Benny Parrish, a vaguely “Gummo”-like bipolar preteen who pops Ritalin and Risperdal before heading out to play with the other kids, hoping social services won’t come and take him away from his parents. (Local newscasts show how the Parrish family, whose hobbies include detonating ordnance behind their trailer, attracted law enforcement attention a few years earlier.)
In addition to Parrish, “Beach” cozies up to two other misfits: stubborn old ladies’ man Dorran “Red” Forgy, still young enough in spirit to tear around the dunes outside Slab City on his four-wheeler, and local football star CeeJay Thompson, who voluntarily relocated from Los Angeles after a cousin was murdered there. Given Red’s crotchety worldview and frequently off-color remarks, he makes a memorable narrator for the project, coming off like a sage old country-music poet (Bob Dylan’s “Moonshiner” serves as his anthem) rather than the bigoted old coot that he is.
While Red seems to enjoy the sense of frontier freedom that comes with self-imposed exile, Thompson embraces the fact that Bombay Beach has none of the distractions that big-city life offered. That all-pervasive boredom (which drives so many in the area to drink and drugs) allowed Har’el to convince her unself-conscious subjects to participate in choreographed musical interludes, which call into question the veracity of everything she captures. At first, the dancing is discreet enough to appear spontaneous — Thompson practicing moves in the desert or the Parrishes slow-dancing in their living room — and it’s not until almost half an hour into the film that these sequences become elaborate enough for us to realize they’ve been carefully orchestrated for effect.
But it’s right about this time that the pic starts to lose momentum. While stand-alone scenes leave strong impressions, the recurring strands — including Parrish’s return to school, Thompson’s interracial romance and Red’s recovery from a mild stroke — simply aren’t compelling, dragging the running time beyond its natural length. Fortunately, the dance scenes grow more elaborate as the pic progresses, bringing a welcome sense of magical realism to this otherwise dreary milieu. Music by Zach Condon (of Beirut) makes the project feel bigger and infinitely more profound by conjuring an almost Fellini-esque quality among the doc’s motley group of outsiders.