Following three hard luck individuals, co-producer/director Alma Har'el interjects musical interludes in her portraits of bipolar seven-year-old Benny Parrish, teenage football player Cee-Jay Thompson, and racist octogenarian Dorran "Red" Forgy. None have many insightful observations about their lives though their problems become apparent immediately.
Located in Southeastern California, this Salton Sea area once enjoyed a public relations hype presented in the film's opening, shots from a1950s newsreel. The current reality at Slab City shows that time and opportunity have long ago fled from today's desolate, rundown environment of social misfits and ne'er do wells. For example, Benny's parents have grabbed local law enforcement's attention with ordnance detonation while Cee-Jay has taken refuge here after his cousin was murdered in South Central L.A.
Like a three-ring circus that keeps viewers engaged with several arenas of activity, Bombay Beach relies on multiple threads to generate interest. In truth, no one story alone has the breadth and depth to sustain involvement. So Har'el continually cross cuts among the three stories, padding content with the interjected music. Those interludes make this a hybrid: a documentary infused with choreographed dancing with music by Zach Condon, Bob Dylan, and others. An Israeli music video maker, Har'el feels more comfortable in those moments than the nonfiction episodes that feel self-conscious.
Every individual has a story to tell, and yet watching the boy get dressed and go to elementary school, listening to high school teenagers fight over romance, and seeing a bitter old man struggle with health issues do not rise to the level of anything more than dull, reality television. Given what looks like unfettered access to these outliers from conventional society, it should offer more. Technically unexceptional, Bombay Beach does include some lovely sunsets and skies, but the compositions otherwise are merely serviceable.
Though it failed to impress me, Bombay Beach won the Best Documentary Feature award at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Its St. Louis premiere takes place at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 13th through Sunday, April 15th. For information and the current schedule, you may call 314-968-7487 or go to the web at: Webster.edu/filmseries.