Can a movie be a dawdling, moody, stitched-together-in-the-editing room art trifle…and also an adventure? “Burning Cane,” which won the Founders Award for best narrative feature at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, isn’t a major work, yet it’s a movie of minor fascinations and seductions; it exerts the pull of a natural-born filmmaker’s eye. To say that not much of consequence happens in it would, in a way, be accurate (there’s no false sense of incident). But in another way every moment in “Burning Cane” is of consequence — the consequence of living and being.
Phillip Youmans, who wrote, directed, photographed, and co-edited the movie, creates a set of characters in rural Louisiana who are so specific in their downbeat dailiness that their lives appear utterly authentic to us. Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), a chainsmoker steeped in faith, talks softly on the soundtrack about all the remedies she has tried (hydrogen peroxide, honey, vegetable oil) to soothe the rashes on her tormented dog, who’s being eaten up by mange. We then see her in the kitchen, butchering a chicken, the radio blaring a song that sounds anachronistically contemporary. In a wood-paneled church, the organ player sings “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and the preacher, Rev. Tillman (played by Wendell Pierce from “The Wire”), goes off on Malcolm Forbes for saying that “He who dies with the most toys wins,” a quote that seems to speak to the worst impulses of our time.
The film then cross-cuts between the sermon and a head-on shot of a car driving on the road, swerving ever-so-slightly into the next lane. That simple shot speaks volumes. It tells us that the person behind the wheel — the reverend — is an alcoholic, and that the truth of his sermon is something he’s escaping into. His wife has recently died, and even going to the Piggly Wiggly supermarket has become his burden. “That’s one of the things I gotta do now,” he says. “I gotta tell ya, ya’ll don’t get enough credit for this shit.” He’s talking about what used to be called “women’s work,” and we can feel in our bones how lost in time he sounds.
It’s telling that the rawness of “Burning Cane” — the unforced rhythms and ripped-from-reality images — overwhelmingly recall “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” last year’s widely heralded portrait of a vibrant and impoverished Southern community. That movie was a documentary; this one is a drama. Yet taken together, the two films stake out the poles of a vanguard aesthetic — a form-follows-function, documentary-meets-drama, image-meets-interior-landscape dialectic — that reflects where a certain strain of independent cinema is now headed: to a place where reality itself is poetry.
If there’s an artist who hovers over this aesthetic, it’s Terrence Malick. Yet whenever I read a review of a movie that compares it to Malick, it tends to scare me off. Too many latter-day “Malick movies” (like, say, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) use visual poetry as a substitute for storytelling. But “Burning Cane” is weirdly and beautifully unpretentious. It simply presents us with lives, and Youmans, a 19-year-old African-American based in New Orleans, who made the film when he was just 17 (with Benh Zeitlin, of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” as executive producer), shows a sophistication that should take him far.
Late in the film, there’s a startling image: The preacher is at home, drinking and watching television, and Youmans frames the TV set on the left side of the screen, like a postage stamp glowing in the darkness, as it blares the 1967 Disney cartoon “The Jungle Book,” the image of Mowgli standing in for a mainstream and maybe racist world. Or perhaps the preacher just likes old Disney cartoons.
“Burning Cane” is a transcendental diary of sin and despair, yet Youmans has the wise-beyond-his-years insight to separate the sinner from the sin. The central character, if the movie has one, might be the reverend, or it could be Daniel (Dominique McClennan), who is out of work, a guzzler of whiskey, and the sort of man who shares drinks with his young son. The kid sits there drawing with crayons, at one point scrawling out a paneled sheet, glimpsed in the dark, that looks like he’s making a comic book. At another point, Daniel puts on a jaunty old record of a blues singer playing guitar and singing “Hot tom-ah-toes and the red hot,” and the ancient song, in context, is like a life force. (It hasn’t stopped running through my head.) Daniel is strong and handsome, but with a booze belly (the sort of thing you don’t tend to see even in indie film), and though his actions are indefensible, the movie is interested in something more potent — his essence.
Why does a good man dissolve into addictive, lazy, destructive behavior? Daniel lost his job after showing up drunk and getting into a fight. His mother, the dog lady Helen, calls him a deadbeat, and he cries, in defense, “They been out to get me since day one,” which bespeaks a world of oppression and, perhaps, conspiratorial self-justification. But we neither embrace his thought or, necessarily, reject it. We hear it and think: I want to know this man, more than I do. It’s that feeling that makes “Burning Cane” a journey. Daniel thinks the world is against him, and maybe he’s right. But “Burning Cane” isn’t a movie about what’s right. It’s a movie — a rare one — about what is.