Review by Sean Boelman
Having won multiple awards upon its debut at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, Burning Cane, the debut of 19 year-old writer-director Phillip Youmans, is receiving a release from filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s company. Shot while Youmans was still in high school, this contemplative character drama is a surprisingly accomplished effort from the first-timer.
The film explores a mother in the rural south as she faces a crisis of faith when her son begins to struggle with his alcoholism and the community’s preacher begins to voice his troubles. Although it seems like very little is happening on the surface of the movie, Youmans’s script is very dense and nuanced, allowing the human drama occurring in this relationship to have both tension and realism.
That said, Youman’s script, while multi-layered, isn’t quite captivating enough to hold the attention of most viewers. Even more so than most slice-of-life films, this movie often wanders along. Granted, Youmans has enough to say that the film never feels aimless, but if one isn’t watching with a particularly analytical eye, it is unlikely that the movie ends up resonating as it should.
At times, it does seem like Youmans is almost trying to say too much, but the fact that the film is so frequently overwhelming actually works in its favor, allowing it to feel all the more brutally honest. People often do have to deal with all of these issues at once, and while the movie likely could have had an even greater emotional impact had it only explored a single aspect of these characters’ lives, Youmans still expresses his message.
The main area in which Youmans’s script is lacking is its character development. Although the characters do have meaningful arcs, the film doesn’t really focus on making the characters sympathetic to the audience. The movie’s message could have hit much harder had the characters felt like more than just vessels to deliver the dialogue.
That said, the actors do a great job in their roles. Wendell Pierce, who plays the troubled preacher that drives the religious aspect of the film, is particularly impressive, giving what is perhaps the best performance of his career. Known primarily for his character work, Pierce instead gets the opportunity to command the screen in this movie with his enthralling sermons.
On a technical level, Youmans definitely has a very strong eye and plenty of talent. The film, taking place in rural Louisiana, takes full advantage of the setting of the cane fields. The cinematography is able to immerse the viewer in this world, making the struggle that the movie is depicting feel all the more present and relevant.
Though Burning Cane may not have the momentum it needs to break out beyond its core art house audience, it is a promising directorial debut from young filmmaker Phillip Youmans. Filled with passion and meaning, this film isn’t quite like any other to come out this year.
Burning Cane is now playing in theaters and on Netflix.
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