Directed by Phillip Youmans
As a self-confessed Godless man you can imagine my trepidation approaching Burning Cane, a film about a woman who must wrestle with her faith in the face of incredibly testing times. My interest was most certainly piqued by the revelation that writer-director Phillip Youmans was just 19 years old at the time he had completed this film. For sure, you can tell this is the young man’s first feature film. His influences and lack of influences are there for all to see on-screen. But is that a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing?
This observational tale opts for an experiential approach over the classic narrative. Helen (Karen Kaia Livers) worries about her alcoholic and jobless son Daniel (newcomer Dominique McClellan) whilst also dealing with the equally unstable pastor (Wendell Pierce) at her local congregation. Set in a stifling and bleak Louisiana, the film plays out in the woozy yet strangely cohesive way any alcohol-induced stupor might. It feels rudderless, directionless and disorientating. Helen spends several long minutes telling us in detail the many ways she has tried to treat her dogs mange. The pastor takes to his spot at the front of his congregation and begins his sermon by chastising those who believe ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’. A walking hypocrite, preaching of the goodness of family and friends when he has clearly done all he can to distance himself from both. Daniel meanwhile keeps himself and his underage son well-lubricated with high-alcohol spirits. These narratives weave in and out of focus over the course of 78 minutes.
At first glance it is all very unattractive and unengaging. Were it not for Wendell Pierce’s arresting performance as the alcohol-infused pastor I would have really struggled to get on board with the film. Considering that Youmans recently revealed that Pierce’s character was a late addition to the script I can only imagine what sort of struggle I might otherwise have had on my hands. There’s no getting away from it, this is a blunt and bleak slice of life that does its best to keep its audience at an arm's length. In the same way Daniel and the pastor don’t let anybody in, Youmans is not prepared to either. There is a silent, omnipresent darkness to the film that threatens to overwhelm not just its characters but its audience too.
In the heady cocktail of alcohol, cigarettes and religion it’s never clear which of the three is more addictive, more poisonous or more indoctrinating. While the pastor doubts the faith of his congregation it is unclear if he himself is a believer. His soul has been consumed by the demon drink just as Daniel’s has. Daniel’s young son accepts this way of life, goes about his day-to-day routine of eating cereal and watching cartoons, whilst the world around him falls to shit. Is there a solution? Is there a way out of such darkness, into the light? If there is its lost in the films thick cigarette smoke. Perhaps the answer lies at the bottom of the bottle and the only way out is to drink through it.
The great strength of this film is that it is totally untouched by big money. There has clearly been no outside influence, no producers or studios pushing for a certain way for the story to resolve itself. That’s to the films credit, but it does mean that for audience members such as myself it will not be very accessible, nor will it resonate as far and wide as it might otherwise do. This is an important first feature. Though it didn’t have enough for me to sink my teeth into I feel like Youmans has only just begun. There is a bright future ahead. Just like the potentially ambiguous ending of this film, I think Youmans career will make more sense once we’re out the other side of it, looking back to where he began. There’s a diseased dog in this tale, no matter how hard you try you just can’t wash away the disease which is ravaging it. It’s sickly and all-consuming. So is Burning Cane. The only way to endure it is to surrender yourself to it completely.