Sep 27, 2019

24FPS @ LFF 2019: Burning Cane

This film is playing at the London Film Festival. This review is from a viewing on the online press library. The festival runs from October 2nd-13th. You'll find a link to tickets at the end of this post. At time of writing, tickets are still available for both of its screenings.

Burning Cane
Dir: Phillip Youmans
As Helen (Karen Kaia Livers) goes about her morning in rural Louisiana, we hear her describe the many old wives tales she heard and tried to implement—all without success—to cure a terrible rash her dog had. This is just one of the snapshots of Helen’s life in an impoverished town, where the Church is the centre of everyday life. We see her at church and with the alcoholic Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce) and trying to reconcile her faith with the troubles her son Daniel (Dominique McClellan), also an alcoholic, is going through.

The influence of Terence Malick and early David Gordon Green hangs heavy over his film,  especially in the use of evocative off camera dialogue and voiceover, often unrelated to much of what we’re seeing on screen. However, writer, director and cinematographer Phillip Youmans also establishes a strong voice of his own with this, his first feature film. Where he departs most from the Malick influence is in his dedication to handheld camera. Alcoholism is all over this film, Reverend Tillman is soaked in drink, to a degree that one could argue Youmans is drawing parallels between religion and booze as intoxicants. That’s not the only thing the film says about alcoholism though as it is also portrayed, through Daniel giving his young son Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly) a drink, as a generational scourge. The handheld camera gives the whole film a woozy feeling, as if it too is mildly intoxicated in all of the scenes with alcoholic characters, which also lends purpose to moments that drift out of focus.

Youmans also knows when to simply let his camera rest. In one especially striking moment we see Daniel in the very back of frame, being berated over the phone by his mother because he has lost his job, while Jeremiah sits in the foreground, colouring. When you take it together with the shot of Daniel getting his son to drink, there is an enormous sense of foreboding in this image; as if Jeremiah’s future can be seen lurking behind him. It’s a brilliant and shatteringly sad image.

The performances are quietly spectacular. Karen Kaia Livers’ Helen carries world weariness and frustration, both with her son and her pastor, but also strength and caring. The voiceover that begins the film is beautifully written, but it’s her delivery that gives it such punch; the held in desperation of it as she recounts every failed attempt at a cure. We also see this combination of qualities in a scene that has her offering to drive Tillman to the store, because he’s obviously completely drunk. Wendell Pierce has an innate authority that lends itself to the role of a pastor, but the subtle way he plays drunk lies under every scene. Youmans isn’t entirely damning of religion, but he certainly comments on how both alcohol and religion can be enablers in the mistreatment of women, as we see a drunk Daniel hit his wife and later Reverend Tillman telling Helen that this is something that should be dealt with between her and God. If the film hits a stumbling block it is only in the last scene, perhaps an ellipsis too far; the fact we don’t see what happens feels a bit empty, but the rest of the snatches of these people’s lives are so well articulated that this is a very minor issue.

Add Youmans’ beautiful imagery to all this and it would be remarkable enough, but he made this film while he was still in high school. Beyond the maturity of his filmmaking, which is staggering, the understanding with which he writes characters generations older than him is exceptional. The crafting of the film’s language, the control of image and tone, the fact he says so much in just 77 minutes, and the way his elliptical construction of the film draws together so movingly all speak of a filmmaker older and more experienced than his 19 years. This is more than a calling card, it feels like an announcement of a talent we’re going to be hearing about for years to come. 

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