Burning Cane (2019)


(director/writer: Phillip Youmans; cinematographer: Phillip Youmans; editors: Phillip Youmans/Ruby Kline; music: Kevin Gullage; cast: Wendell Pierce (Reverend Tillman), Karen Kaia Livers (Helen Wayne), Dominique McClennan (Daniel Wayne), Braelyn Kelly (Jeremiah Wayne), Cynthia Capers (Marsha Bland), Erika Woods (Dianne), Emyri Crutchfield (Sherry Bland); Runtime: 78; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Wendell Pierce, Mose Mayer, Ojo Akinlana, Karem Kaia Livers, Cassandra Youmans, Phillip Youmans; Denizen Pictures; 2019)

“Acts as a lyrical meditation on rural life, domestic violence, religion, the black experience and despair.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A low-budget moody arthouse drama that’s much like a documentary, that acts as a lyrical meditation on rural life, domestic violence, religion, the black experience and despair. It’s written and directed by the New Orleans native 19-year-old Phillip Youmans, in his debut feature film, that he made while still in high school (which is the most amazing thing about it, as all its craftsmanship flaws from sloppy editing to a rambling narrative can easily be forgiven because of the filmmaker’s youth). Youmans currently attends NYU’s film school. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and won the top prize despite a large part of the audience walking out on the film. It’s set in the swamps of Southeastern Louisiana, in an insular black community, during the hot summer months. The characters include the weak-willed Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce), who lost his wife and is losing his faith and is drinking heavily from a flask. He’s the pastor for a family in shambles, as represented by its lonely religious widow matriarchal elderly leader, Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers). She provides the film with an opening voiceover, that tells us she worries about both her mangy dog possibly having to be put down and her troubled family stuck in a situation that is only getting worse. She has no choice but to turn for help to the thunderous sermonizing preacher, who preaches vehemently against sin, for answers to their family despair and battle with liquor. Trouble is the sweaty preacher needs as much saving as does the family, though he means well.Helen’s unemployed son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) is a lost soul alcoholic, who abuses his wife (Emyri Crutchfield). Daniel’s mute-like son Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly) is a victim of bad parenting, exposed to liquor at an early age. What gets conveyed by this grim picture of the family is the desperation that engulfs this African-American community and how trapped they are in their self-inflicted misery with no outside help on the way. The hypnotic tone of the film keeps it raw and authentic, with a powerhouse performance by Pierce, evoking a deep sense of disappointment over his failed life. It also offers a sobering look at a family trying to deal with their grim life and their inability to get a handle on how to improve it, and the frustration with all the malaise in an area with so much striking visual beauty. We get the feeling it’s a sin what these characters are doing to themselves and their inability to come to grips with themselves. This is probably a film for the few who believe the youngster has the maturity to say something about life in the contemporary swamps that matters. But the over melodramatic finale and the cloudy storytelling and opaque themes will probably not gain an audience outside of the more sensitized arthouse viewers who can relish it as a genuine slice-of-life film covering folks most of us can easily ignore. But Youmans’ artful look at rural life in a black community should have enough going for it about the black experience in the south to make us keep an eye on him for his future projects and development.