I don’t remember (or maybe would rather not recall) what I was doing towards the end of my teenage years, but I can safely say it was not accomplishing the feats that local burgeoning filmmaker and now college-aged Phillip Youmans has. His first feature-length movie Burning Cane, set and shot in the rural parts of Louisiana – where sugar cane grows and secrets get buried deep – recently had its world premiere at the New York City film festival known as Tribeca where it also took home top honors. Entertainment sites and outlets have been buzzing about this victory in a way rarely seen since Beasts of the Southern Wild (the director of that, Benh Zeitlin, executive produced Cane), and have even given it similar to greater critical claim.
Of course, I had to reach out. Of course, I had to watch. Of course, I had to review.
While I would call myself a late bloomer of sorts, I don’t think that there’s any shame in the distinction as long as something has been and is being done. For Youmans, who has already done plenty, there are decades of pride and slam-dunks to come. Burning Cane, for its more often than not out of focus auto-focus shots in natural and dark light environments, is more than the sum of its surface-level faults. To add another mark on his resume, Youmans didn’t just write and direct, he operated both the camera and the editing bay too. He is almost solely responsible for the mesmerizing evocations of misty atmosphere and family trauma turned tragedy turned will of God. It is a mighty picture, this one is.
Mighty in composition for certain. In the opening, we see smoke billowing from a field. At once, there is an askew angle we’re witnessing it all from, where cane stalk appears to reach the heavens as ash rains down and smoke rises in the background. No fire is seen at this moment. It’s a haunting portrait full of spirit and weight to begin with and only escalates from there. Many more askew shots occur, sometimes between door racks and curtain openings, sometimes through a hole. When a character is too drunk to stand at a sink, the camera reflects his equilibrium by being unsteady. When a phone conversation becomes ugly and ends with an exclamation point, the faraway man on the receiving end stares intensely at a child in the foreground. Every frame, no matter the difficulty in the rendering, has a purpose and a power.
Mighty in story, this one is as well. Burning Cane is the tale of a woman of faith and the few but strong trials she goes through in the short time we’re with her. She’s tested often but, as a mother and suggestively a survivor of domestic assault, she maintains her stoicism for the sake of everyone around her. Her community and her lord, essentially. While her son is a drunk deadbeat of a husband and father, her pastor (the great Wendell Pierce) too is battling with the bottle and the consequences of certain acts at home. And in this unnamed area of rural Louisiana, where phones are bulky with dials and loud with ringers, where VCRs are still used as are tube TVs, things like pain and suffering, like shame and guilt, are best dealt with personally, to be burned in the fields and ultimately cleansed from our souls.
Burning Cane resonates with the sound of thunder and the energy of a lightning bolt. Despite and in spite of my mostly non-beliefs in a higher power, I do feel close to something greater than my being when watching this film. Whether that something is on Earth or beyond, I don’t know. Whether that something possesses us to be better or merely influences us by having merely been created by us, I also don’t know. Burning Cane makes the case, in this insecure doubters mind, of the possibility of enlightenment and ascension through deeds done while living. And the deeds don’t always have to be “good” to be, in the end, a good thing.
Ends justifying the means? Sometimes. At times a meditation on what burns in all towards light and dark, a breaking of abuse cycles, and a stark peek at what we’re all capable of, Burning Cane does the work of cinema most humid and drama most potent. Jealous? Not really, but knowing the kinds of stories I made up in my high school years, I’m absolutely impressed. And my younger self is, surely, inspired to step up more.
I mean, if time works that way.
RATING: 5 / 5
Burning Cane is touring the festival circuit, but look out for it when it inevitably plays in town.