LFF 2019: Burning Cane Review
Much will be made of Phillip Youmans’ age when the writer, director, DoP, and camera operator made, this, his first film. Just look at Xavier Dolan following his debut, the ‘wunderkind’ label was bandied round for at least five years of the last decade. However, that surliness and juvenile (albeit brilliant) edge to I Killed My Mother is largely missing from Youmans’ debut Burning Cane; a mature Southern Gothic drama which belies the (then) High Schooler’s age (he’s 19 now).
Set in rural Louisiana, our leading lady Helen (Karen Kaia Livers) sits on her stoop smoking, her voiceover discusses her dog Giorgio. It has the ‘mange’ and she is attempting to prolong its life anyway she can. Helen has been surrounded by 'diseased mutts' most of her life – her late husband succumbed to an AIDS-related illness while her Pastor Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce) and only son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) are fighting with alcoholism. Tillman continues to drink on the job following the death of his wife and won’t accept any help, least of all from his flock, choosing instead to drive home each night after sermons, inebriated, his car swerving all over the road.
Daniel, on the other hand, has to contend with keeping house while his partner (Emyri Crutchfield) goes to work and supports their family. He cooks, cleans, and fixes things around the place but it’s taking its toll. He’s questioning his masculinity and is steadily on self-destruct mode; he’s the man and should be the one providing, not staying at home looking after son Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly).
'Looking after' may be somewhat of a stretch, the boy is mute - presumably a nod to the weeping prophet he is named for – unable (or choosing not) to talk and accepts his father’s love in the form of an occasional meal and glasses of milk laced with whatever liquor the older male is guzzling down. There’s a hint at something darker going on between father and son but the level of abuse remains at the booze-pushing and never leads anywhere else, beyond the steady decline of a man who would rather use his fists in a drunken stupor than work through any of his issues.
Youmans utilises a number of camera angles and shots which suit the oblique storytelling, however, at times poor lighting and a literal lack of focus feel unnecessary especially when considered alongside the already slow pace. Being unable to see much within the frame is problematic, however intentional but it does help build mood with the extreme dichotomy of light and dark. As the claustrophobia hits its peak, the humidity and sweat are palpable. It’s a pensive narrative, and while its foundations are embedded within the art film, it is largely raw, grass roots filmmaking.
This is Helen’s struggle to reconcile her faith alongside her relationship with her son. It's a film about sin, despair, drink and poverty. One which examines a mother's love for her child, deep-rooted toxic masculinity - the definition of what it means to be a man - and the role religion plays within the black community onscreen. Many pray to a Father for guidance, and yet few have fathers to guide them. There is condemnation of the Church and yet at no point does the institution feel demonised.
Colours are kept to a minimum too, greys, greens, browns with the occasional flash of orange (courtesy of the fruit trees Jeremiah finds solace in or the burning umber of a lit cigarette). Daylight is also a rarity - while we're so used to the depiction of a light, bright sunny South on film, in Helen's world, everything is tinged with a dismal grey while heavy clouds hang in the sky. The film's title relates to the annual process of harvesting sugar cane; fields are set alight before the valuable part of the crop is harvested, an apt metaphor for the film's narrative.
While as a whole, the film never feels completely cohesive and ends somewhat abruptly, it is a promising vérité style debut which feels reminiscent of early Burnett and Malick. Following its trifecta of wins at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, It’s safe to say there will be plenty of interest in what Youmans creates next.