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The Independent Critic

Alma Har'el
80 Mins.
Focus World

 "Bombay Beach" Review 
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Flashbacks to Harmony Korine kept entering my mind while watching the Independent Award Spirit nominee Bombay Beach, one of 2011's more unique documentaries weaving together photography, music and poignant character studies into a film that is both visually arresting and intellectually stimulating.

Conceived and directed by Alma Har'el, Bombay Beach vividly captures the economically and geographically remote lives of a small group of people in the Southern California desert town of Bombay Beach. The film focuses on three characters; 1) A cigarette bootlegger who lives in a rather dilapidated trailer, 2) A teenager who was transplanted from South Central L.A. after a tragic killing and who dreams of becoming an athlete, and 3) Benny, a young and heavily medicated child with significant behavioral issues.

In drawing out portraits of these three, Har'el is neither overly sympathetic nor detached. Instead, she's sensitive in the ways that she constructs their stories and presents them on the screen. Har'el lived amongst this community for four months while filming, and there's an emotional grounding to the film that aids it dramatically.

The true power of Bombay Beach may come in the ways that Har'el finds to empower the voices of her subjects. Rather than your usual "talking head" approach, Har'el finds incredible ways of utilizing sound and image to empower the voices of her film's subjects. With a background in commercials and music videos, it's clear that Har'el understands how to incorporate both entertainment and meaning into her films. While Bombay Beach does occasionally suffer from Har'el's music video tendencies, for the most part she expertly uses music to help tell the stories unfolding here. Har'el incorporates the music of Bob Dylan along with original pieces by Zach Condon (from the band Beirut) in what amounts to music video-style segments within the fabric of the film.

Sound odd? It is. It also works.

There are scenes in Bombay Beach that bring to mind a documentary from a couple years back, American Teen, in the sense that they feel, well, staged. They may or may not be, but they lack the spontaneous spirit that one would expect from a documentary that so strongly emphasizes a melding together of sound, image and humanity.

Bombay Beach captured a Best Editing prize at the Woodstock Film Festival and has been nominated for The Independent Spirit Award in the Aveeno "Truer Than Fiction" category.

Those who embrace experimental cinema and who can appreciate its sublime imagery and captivating characters will be most likely to embrace Bombay Beach, while those who require linear storytelling or clearly stated objectives may go completely insane. Bombay Beach is currently in the midst of a limited nationwide run including a series of virtual screenings on Constellation TV.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic