Well deserved recipient of the Best Documentary award at Tribeca this year, "Bombay Beach" is an incredibly moving portrait of failed economic development and the humanity that continues to persevere even though forgotten in one of the poorest communities in southern California located near the Salton Sea. Three subjects are chosen to represent the community -- the elderly Red, a man who spouts prophetic musings and lives on cigarettes and booze; Cee Jay, a high-school football star dealing with the gang-related death of his cousin and hoping to score a scholarship to make a decent life for himself; and Benny, a young and imaginative boy suffering from bipolar disorder. Each is followed in their day-to-day routines, their interactions with their families, neighbors, and friends closely examined in a perfectly crafted, cinema-verite style.
Decayed buildings and rubble are the backdrop for this tale, but they're not the focus of the pic. Rather, they're used to show the inhabitants' complete lack of concern over these barren lands, retaining hope and dignity despite the unforgiving environment. Children play and teens dance in the abandoned properties populating the land -- in fact, one of the most poignant moments (aside from the fantastic ending sequence) involves Benny playing on the desolate beach, recounting a vivid dream involving him and his family being in prison. Even though these aren't the most perfect people (Benny's father often drinks and becomes violently belligerent, Red has a volatile personality lurking within), the director never looks down upon them and constructs a very hopeful piece.
Alma Har-el's debut feature showcases an assured talent, especially in areas that a lot of documentaries tend to over look, particularly cinematography and the soundtrack. Most of the film is shot in crisp HD during sundown, and the music -- largely consisting of music by Beirut and Bob Dylan -- gives the flick a pulsating energy, especially during the stand-alone dance sequences. Similar to the like-minded film "October Country" (track it down), "Bombay Beach" offers a sincere look at people that are rarely given this amount of attention in the film world. [A]
Gnarr himself is a winning personality. His campaign slogan, “Hooray for all kinds of things” showcases his unflappable optimism, not to mention his cheekily dismissive attitude towards the day-to-day activities required of a major political figure. The campaign can’t stay a joke forever, of course, and as the campaign trail lengthens, we see Gnarr is a humanist who believes in humor as a more unifying force than stump speeches, and champions every measure that can be taken to appeal to the common people. His attitude appears to be anti-corporation, until you hear about his dream to add a Disneyland to Reykjavik’s budget.
“Gnarr” boasts moments of lighthearted good humor, particularly in isolated situations with the affable Gnarr, who on one occasion demands everyone in his employ to watch and enjoy “The Wire.” But there’s the sense Ulfarsson, who appears onscreen frequently enough to be considered a groupie, doesn’t seem interested in challenging the charming would-be politician. Just because he may be an ideal representative with a quick wit doesn’t mean he is beyond reproach, and Ulfarsson compensates for his softball approach by rejiggering the narrative, acknowledging at the very beginning that Gnarr will eventually win the election, a structure that allows for Gnarr’s introspective recollections of the campaign trail in place of whatever critiques and insight Ulfarsson could offer. Ulfarsson’s choice to illuminate some and ignore other facets of the Gnarr campaign, sadly, is a perfect example of politics as usual. [B]
-- with additional reporting by Christopher Bell