My film teacher once told me that when you film ordinary things like a morning commute or a trip to the store, it can really come off as pure art if done correctly. This is something I’ve debated for a long time, mostly with myself in my many hours alone. Can something as bland or normal as a car ride truly transcend into beauty simply by the addition of a lens? It seems illogical at first, in my opinion. What’s the difference between staring at a broken bottle, and then staring a photo of a broken bottle?
Bombay Beach explores many things, all quite successfully I might add. Following the lives of three separate people, a rambunctious child, being given copious amounts of behavioral drugs, named Benny, an aspiring NFL player nicknamed CeeJay, and a young-at-heart cigarette bootlegger nicknamed Red. The three, as different as they may be (Benny is a young child, CeeJay is a black teenager, and Red is a senior citizen), have very similar situations in life, and in a in a lot of ways, too. Twice CPS, due to neglect and unfit living conditions, has taken Benny away from his parents. CeeJay is in love with a girl that’s in a mentally abusive relationship with another boy, and Red is approaching senility, requiring medical care after having a mini-stroke.
The genius in Bombay Beach resides in the intriguing characters, expert directing, and an extremely bizarre genre. Bombay Beach may be the first film that I can label as a DocuDrama Musical. Directed by music video director, Alma Har’el, the film contains some well-choreographed dances, as well as some scenes that are basically music videos for Beirut and Bob Dylan, who composed most of the soundtrack. Now, you might be thinking, “This is a lot to do in a mere 80 minutes. Three plots, dance sequences, and music videos?!” Well, yes, it does seem like a lot, but somehow the filmmakers, and especially the editors, constructed a beautifully shot documentary that plays as if it were a scripted feature film.
The characters are neither protagonists nor antagonists. They’re people. They curse and drink and smoke just like almost everyone else does. I don’t think the director intended for the audience to think that these families were bad people, but a part of me also thinks that they weren’t necessarily intended to be what we define as “good” people either. They just are who they are, and we get to be the fly on the wall in their lives.
The plots are somewhat loose, and don’t necessarily make the film what it is, but they’re there, even if they’re extremely scarce. The images as I’ve mentioned are gorgeous, while others are very disturbing, including a brief shot of the rotting corpse of an abandoned dog. All of these components combined make Bombay Beach a must watch for any film-lover. Not only is it the most inventive documentary of the year, it’s also the most thought provoking. These families that live in the poorest town in Southern California have stories and lives and issues to deal with, too. We tend to forget about people like this. We write them off as white trash and low lives, but there’s always more to the story than we give credit. Bombay Beach isn’t a perfect film, but then again, neither are the people in it, which is what makes it so relatable, and at the same time so new.