Bringing together a blend of documentary, music, and dance, Alma Har’el’s “Bombay Beach” is able to pull together a story of a community living on the fringes of society, with almost no contact with anyone outside of the roughly 300 or so residents. They use golf carts to get around on the few paved roads they have around because the nearest gas station is about 20 miles away. Driving around at such a slow speed might be good because if they were to get in an accident, the nearest hospital is an hour away. This is not a community that is in need, this is a community that is hopeless.
The narrative of the film follows three stories, the first being of young Benny Parrish. School-aged Benny is on a constantly adjusting cocktail of behavioural medications. His parents and school seem to think that he is unable to control himself and is sent home for throwing a rock at another student. The combination of Risperidone, Ritalin, and lithium can be upped but the parenting and resources available to Benny will never get any better. The group of misfits Benny has to interact with in the community don’t give him much to strive for either. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Benny says he wants to be “weird,” and who can blame him when you look at his role models.
Benny’s father and mother were previously arrested for setting up a war zone in their backyard, fully equipped with bunkers and homemade bombs. Why do this you ask? Benny’s father, having not graduated high school, was denied entry to the U.S. Army and decided to set up an army camp of his own, just in case.
The patriarch of the community is Octogenarian Red. Red loves his bourbon and his cigarettes. You see right away how secluded Bombay Beach is when Red drives out to the reserve to buy cheap cigarettes which he, in turn, sells back to his community in order to make ends meet essentially making Red the most powerful man in Bombay Beach.
The final story is of teenager CeeJay. CeeJay seems to be the only member of the community who has any aspiration or really any hope of ever leaving Bombay Beach. His dream is to make it big as an NFL player but his only hope is to get a football scholarship to a state school and he needs to get his grades up to even get that. There’s not a lot to do in Bombay Beach so CeeJay spends most of his time working out and hanging out with his friends talking about getting girls, even though there don’t seem to be many girls around to get anyway.
The film is heavily stylized but is done delicately so that it does not feel unauthentic as a documentary. There are several choreographed segments throughout the film, not choreographed in the way that a reality TV show might be orchestrated to create drama, but choreographed to create convey the emotion felt by the subjects of the film. For example, there is a dance scene with CeeJay and a girlfriend that allows viewers access to the intimacy of their relationship without invading their privacy to the point of compromising the reality of the film
Ha’rel uses a mix of 35mm and 8mm film, and home video throughout “Bombay Beach.” A lot of the archival footage such as newscasts about Benny’s parents’ arrest is run down, but that only adds to the image of the community as run down and behind the times so judging “Bombay Beach” based on video quality is against the purposes of the film. That said, the scenes shot on film have a lot of visual depth and while there is some artifact found on the film at times, it only adds to the raw tone of the content of “Bombay Beach.”
The DVD comes with a 5.1 Dolby Digital sound track which is the perfect set-up for the film which includes music from Beirut and Bob Dylan. The music is used sparingly but effectively and sounds good in the mix. There is a bit of an issue with some unclear dialogue, but subtitles are added by the filmmaker when appropriate.
For a relatively short documentary, “Bombay Beach” comes with a healthy dose of extras. Besides the typical trailer, there is director commentary on selected scenes, and some deleted scenes. The most interesting feature is the “Where are They Now?” feature which catches up with CeeJay, Red, and the Parrishes since the film wrapped. It’s a very satisfying feature which I wish would be included on more documentaries that focus on individuals. Finally, there are a few Beirut music videos directed by Har’el. All in all, they put in a very good effort for the extras on the DVD.
If “Bombay Beach” has one flaw, it is that Har’el doesn’t give enough of the back story of the town and how it became as decrepit as it did. Located on the man-made Salton Sea, Bombay Beach was intended as a tourist destination and haven for retirees. With Bombay Beach being among the lowest altitudes in the U.S., hurricanes and earthquakes made for bad flooding in the area. This of course ran off any tourism and anyone who could afford to get out of town did decades ago. If you’re unfourtunate enough to be born into the community as Benny was, your life will always be an uphill battle. Even without the background info, “Bombay Beach” is a captivating, innovative approach to documentary. The main subjects of the film are diverse yet they are all faced with the same challenges and you can’t help but wonder how a country like the United States, one of the richest in the world, can have communities that resemble third world living conditions and almost no hope for a better life. It’s a sad but eye-opening tale that will make you take a closer look at your own backyard.