Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Tribeca with Abe: Burning Cane

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which ran April 24th – May 5th.

Burning Cane
Directed by Phillip Youmans
US Narrative Competition

Religion is a community institution that brings people together, yet there is a fervor that can exist within an individual’s body and mind that offers a spiritual connection related to no one else. That may enhance their existence or may bring trouble, causing a person to doubt their own worth or ability, unconfident that they can fulfill what life or the lord has asked from them. That internal struggle can affect even the most faith-oriented of people, especially when what they see going on in the world around them contradicts their sense of what is right and what should be.

Among the conflicted in this story set in Louisiana are Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce), a widowed preacher far too prone to drink than is good for him, Helen Wayne (Karen Kala Livers), a woman with a sick dog, and her son Daniel (Dominique McClellan), whose alcohol dependency is crippling and prevents him from holding down a job and being able to support his family. Their lives intersect with the church as a place that unites them but also as more of an idea of a higher power that might watch or judge them for what they do, offering some direction that they can hope to follow.

Describing this film as experimental isn’t quite accurate, but it is certainly artistic. The comparisons to the works of Terrence Malick are well-earned, if that’s considered to be a compliment. This film has been feted extensively by the Tribeca Film Festival, eliciting awards for its cinematography, lead actor Pierce, and the citation for Best Narrative Feature. Even before that, it was cause for celebration due to the extremely young age of its director, Phillip Youmans, currently a freshman at NYU studying film and still in high school when the film was finished. There is indeed potential here, but this 78-minute project doesn’t have a concrete or compelling focus to it.

Pierce, who currently stars on “Jack Ryan” and last inhabited the Big Easy on HBO’s “Treme,” gets an unusual chance to step into the spotlight, residing in a position of power and influence that his characters rarely do and crafting a complex, broken turn. Livers also delivers a strong performance, though acting in this film pales to its fractured construction, designed to truly draw audiences in but ultimately more occupied with contemplative cinematography to probe its setting than anything else. As with other artsy fare, this film has its value but isn’t as resounding as others seem to believe it is.


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