Documentary-fiction hybrids are tough to pull off, and this one stumbles hard over the fiction part. The good news is that Bombay Beach is a gorgeously shot, humane work that casts a Malickian (or at least David Gordon Greenian) meditative spell.
Alma Har’el’s film takes a narratively oblique approach to the impoverished residents of a community near California’s ruinous Salton Sea and sketches their lives with nuance and compassion rather than simply exaggerating their quirks. That’s no small achievement, and it makes the bewildering predicament of preteen bipolar-disorder sufferer Benny Parrish, who’s grossly overmedicated yet sensitive and bright, unusually palpable. This frankness is matched by the swooning tenderness with which high school football player CeeJay Thompson treats his girlfriend (especially impressive given the trials he endures as one of the few African Americans in town). Even the cowpoke charm of itinerant oldster and casual racist Red, a self-styled “lost, lonely dude in a faraway place,” shines through.
It’s when writer-director-all-around-auteur Har’el, best known for her music videos for the band Beirut, floats the locale as a grand metaphor for the demise of the American Dream that things get tricky. She obscures the fact that the Salton Sea and nearby Slab City (Red’s crib, also heavily allegorized) are as much a magnet for people intent on fleeing said dream as passively washing out of it, then proceeds to incorporate a shifty mix of reality and fabrication. Some of the movie’s most pointed and beautiful passages are obviously staged, so a late shot of Benny’s older sister mooning over a phases-of-birth poster in a clinic leaves the nagging question of whether she did so without prompting. By the climactic fantasy sequence, in which Benny commandeers a fire engine and tools around town in full firefighter drag (complete with mustache), it’s hard to shake the feeling that you, and possibly Bombay Beach’s citizenry, have been had.
I’ve got nothing against lyricizing the everyday—more documentarians could learn from Har’el’s uncanny patience and hawk’s eye for visual irony; even the professionally choreographed dance interludes she wedges in work. (Peppering the soundtrack with songs by Beirut and Bob Dylan, on the other hand, is garishly pretentious.) But whatever else these folks’ lives are or aren’t, and however they ended up on the edge of this particular abyss, their stories are plainly rich enough without the addition of flashy, fanciful embellishments.