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Lives Wash Up on the Wasteland

Bombay Beach (2011)

Alma Har’el

The tiny settlement of Bombay Beach nestles on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea in southeastern California. It’s a fractured piece of Americana, a relic of an abortive 1950s tourism development that now lies neglected, forgotten and rapidly decaying. It’s also home to a small but eclectic posse of folk who exist very literally on the fringes of society. Confronted by death and decay at every turn, one could be forgiven for thinking this was a place shorn of hope, a haven for those who had given up on normal life. But Alma Ha’rel’s stunning documentary paints a very different and utterly beautiful picture of life lived on the edge.

Ms. Ha’rel’s picture opens with a prologue of a ’50s advert selling the Salton Sea as a booming region of prosperity and growth, the very definition of the American Dream. Fast forward to the present day, and the reality couldn’t be more markedly different. Bombay Beach lies rusting and almost deserted, a derelict and unforgiving place. Yet it is home to a few hundred outsiders, and Ms. Ha’rel interweaved the stories of three of its capricious residents.

Benny Parrish is a hyperactive young boy, heavily medicated to manage his behavioral difficulties. Given his familial background — during which during the paranoid post-9/11 era his parents were jailed for more than two years on explosives and ammunition charges — it’s hardly surprising. Dorran “Red” Forgy, an octogenarian drifter lives on the breadline, supporting himself by bootlegging cigarettes; whilst Ceejay Thompson — an exile of Los Angeles and an N.F.L. hopeful — luxuriates in the sanctity and serenity that only a place as remote as Bombay Beach could afford. While for some, Bombay Beach is a dead end; for Mr. Thompson, it represents a second chance and above all else hope.

Ms. Ha’rel adopts an inherently observational, unobtrusive and naturalistic approach, letting the action play out; but there are fantastical, almost ethereal moments when Messrs. Thompson, Parrish et al break into what seems like spontaneous dance, conveying a deeply personal, very humanistic and perhaps truest public expression of their selves. Tinged in an almost perpetual sunset and accompanied by the haunting tones of Beirut and the very American twang of Bob Dylan, these dances provide a glimpse of Bombay Beach that is intrinsically pure and, above all, beautiful.

All this is in marked contrast to the persistent shots of dead fish and animals, evidently hugely symbolic of this fragmenting and isolated sub-sector of society. And for some, therein lies the appeal of Bombay Beach: It’s a tightknit, intertwined community that harbors societies’ misfits and that allows those directionless souls to self-destruct amidst a sea of boredom and booze. In a sense, Bombay Beach represents the very literal death of the American dream.

Yet even Bombay Beach — such an insular society — adheres to normal constructs. Mr. Parrish is picked on and excluded for being different; and Mr. Thompson feels like an outsider as one of Bombay Beach’s only black residents. It’s an effective microcosm of society at large; there are always outsiders, even amongst a society full of them. Ms. Ha’rel also chose to continually emphasize the physical isolation of Bombay Beach by highlighting the distances of such familiar locales such as the nearest school or hospital. With most of these lying more than 25 miles away, it’s as secluded as can be.

Yet there remains a glimmer of hope and there are fleeting hints of a Blitz spirit amongst the outliers of Bombay Beach. For the most part, its residents try and make the best of their situation; and Ms. Ha’rel’s understated, vivid and aesthetically sublime portrayal of a life lived on the margins emphasizes the importance of retaining at least a sliver of hope and an idea of a dream, whatever the likelihood of achieving either.

This is Americana: It’s unique and undeniably fragile, but there’s life in it yet.


Opens on Feb. 3 in the United Kingdom.

Directed by Alma Har’el; director of photography, Ms. Har’el; edited by Joe Lindquist and Ms. Har’el; music by Zach Condon; produced by Ms. Har’el and Boaz Yakin; released by Dogwoof. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. This film is not rated.


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