×

Tribeca Film Review: ‘Burning Cane’

Phillip Youmans' moody documentary-like drama turns a handful of downbeat lives in rural Louisiana into a poetic adventure in seeing.

Director:
Phillip Youmana
With:
Wendell Pierce, Karen Kaia Livers, Dominique McClennan, Braelyn Kelly.

Official Site: https://www.tribecafilm.com/filmguide/burning-cane-2019

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.

Tribeca Film Review: 'Burning Cane'

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (US Narrative Competition), May 6, 2019. Running time: 78 MIN.

Production: A Denizen Pictures production. Producers: Wendell Pierce, Mose Mayer, Ojo Akinlana, Karem Kaia Livers, Cassandra Youmans, Phillip Youmans. Executive producer: Benh Zeitlin.  

Crew: Director, screenplay: Phillip Youmans. Camera (color, widescreen): Phillip Youmans. Editor: Phillip Youmans, Ruby Kline.

With: Wendell Pierce, Karen Kaia Livers, Dominique McClennan, Braelyn Kelly.

More Film

  • Rounds

    Stephan Komandarev and Catalin Mitulescu Films Among Sarajevo's 23 World Premieres

    The latest films from Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev and Romania’s Catalin Mitulescu are among 23 world premieres competing for the Heart of Sarajevo awards at the 25th Sarajevo Film Festival. Komandarev’s 2017 film “Directions” played in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard and his 2008 opus “The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner” was [...]

  • Tommy JamesCousin Brucie 3rd Annual Palisades

    Tommy James Biopic 'Me, the Mob and the Music' in Development (EXCLUSIVE)

    Pop music star Tommy James and film producer Barbara DeFina are developing the biopic “Me, the Mob and the Music,” based on James’ autobiography. DeFina, whose credits include Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” and “GoodFellas,” and James have tapped three-time Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall to helm the film adaptation from a screenplay by Matthew Stone (“Intolerable [...]

  • Terminator: Dark Fate

    Comic-Con: ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ Cast Will Hit Reddit Live-Streamed AMA (EXCLUSIVE)

    Arnold is back — and he and other cast members of “Terminator: Dark Fate” are joining a first-of-its-kind live-streaming Reddit AMA on Thursday from Comic-Con International in San Diego. For the new installment in the “Terminator” franchise, Paramount Pictures is hosting a traditional Comic-Con panel Thursday 11 a.m.-12 noon in Hall H. Then, a few [...]

  • Pedestrians walk past a large screen

    Johnny Kitagawa: Power, Abuse, and the Japanese Media Omerta

    Will the death of Johnny Kitagawa lead to a change of attitude by the Japanese media to the powerful Johnny & Associates talent agency that he formed? Public broadcaster NHK and others this week reported a warning to the company from the Fair Trade Commission over alleged pressure on TV stations to keep members of [...]

  • Jahmil X.T. Qubeka on Durban Opening-Night

    Jahmil X.T. Qubeka on Durban Opening-Night Film ‘Knuckle City’

    DURBAN–Dudu Nyakama is an aging boxer whose best fighting days are behind him. But for a man whose only glory has come in the ring, a big prize fight offers the one shot at saving his family, dragging him into the criminal underbelly of the gritty township he’s spent his whole life trying to escape. [...]

  • it chapter two, comic con

    Comic-Con: 4500 Gallons of Fake Blood and Everything Else to Know About 'It Chapter Two'

    Comic-Con 2019 kicked off with a stacked presentation from the director and cast of “It Chapter Two” on Wednesday, inspiring a curious amount of joy at San Diego’s Spreckels Theater in spite of the abject terror offered up by the film. The closing chapter to 2017’s record-obliterating “It,” the highest grossing R-rated horror film of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content