Wendell Pierce stars in a young director’s tale of drink and despair

'Burning Cane'

Source: Tribeca Film Festival

‘Burning Cane’

Dir/scr: Phillip Youmans. US. 2019. 78 mins.

Burning Cane is set in the deep swampy lowlands of Southeastern Louisiana, where it can be a struggle to hear yourself over the sounds of buzzing bugs and the wind whipping through the tall grass. But listen hard, and you can hear the sound of people falling apart. There is the preacher, who has lost his wife – and maybe his faith – and alternates between railing against sin at the pulpit and weaving down the road, gulping thirstily from a flask. There is the widow, worried about her mangy dog – and all the other vicious creatures she knows. And there is the sullen wounded man, unable to take care of himself, let alone his family, and seemingly fated to drag his young son down with him.

With its deliberately oblique storytelling, and a finale that’s both obtuse and melodramatic, Burning Cane is definitely going to be a polarizing picture for audiences

This is the grim world of Burning Cane, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival already carrying a terrific backstory – its debut director, Phillip Yeomans, 19, shot the film while he was still in high school. That made-for-PR story, along with a strong performance by Wendell Pierce as the drunken pastor, is guaranteed to get the film some good will and great attention. Although the subject matter and Yeoman’s own sometimes crude approach will make it a hard sell to larger audiences, a modest arthouse success, and perhaps some end-of-year critics’ awards, seem likely.

Ironically, the movie’s most obvious selling point – its creator’s astounding youth – leads to its most obvious flaw. It takes more than simply celebrating rural life and marveling at nature to make someone the next David Gordon Green, let alone the next Terrence Malick. While Yeomans inarguably finds something significant in the slow pace of small towns, the power of narration and the jolt of handheld cinematography, exactly what that is isn’t always clear. In fact, sometimes it’s literally unclear; shots slip out of focus, and some close-ups are so poorly lit the characters’ features disappear.

There are possibly some interesting characters here although the sketchy script, also by Youmans, is reluctant to give them too much to say or do. Certainly there are some fine actors on hand. His face a mask of sweat and self-loathing, his voice a rumbling freight train of emotion, Pierce is a sad catastrophe as the drunken preacher, an accident waiting to happen and unable to be prevented. And Karen Kaia Livers is a force of nature as Helen, a large and in charge country woman resigned to the fact that her family is falling apart before her eyes.

Other characters are less fully drawn, however, particularly Helen’s son Daniel, played by Dominique McClellan, and Daniel’s son Jeremiah, played by Braelyn Kelly. How deep do Daniel’s problems go? We see him giving his small son liquor, playing him bawdy old blues songs – but does this kind of parental abuse turn even darker, even sicker, when the two are off screen? And how is it affecting Jeremiah? The boy never says a word, although whether that’s because he’s seriously withdrawn, or just seriously underwritten, is up for debate.

With its deliberately oblique storytelling, and a finale that’s both obtuse and melodramatic, Burning Cane is definitely going to be a polarizing picture for audiences; at the Tribeca screening, the number of people who walked out early was roughly matched by the number who applauded warmly at the end. And yet, despite the film’s moody messiness, they had reasons to cheer. For if this is what its young director can do with a tiny budget, what will he do with a larger one? If this is what he makes now – despite all the callowness and sloppy exuberance of youth – what will he do in a few years?

Production companies: Denizen Pictures

Worldwide sales: Untitled Entertainment rw@untitledent.net

Producers: Phillip Youmans, Mose Mayer, Ojo Akinlana, Cassandra Youmans, Wendell Pierce, Karen Kaia Livers, Isaac Webb, Jakob Johnson

Production design: Ojo Akinlana

Editing: Phillip Youmans, Ruby Kline

Cinematography: Phillip Youmans

Music: Mary Lou Williams, Robert Johnson, Erin Knight

Main cast: Karen Kaia Livers, Dominique McClellan, Wendell Pierce