Directed by Alma Har'el
"Life is nothing but a habit anyway," says Red, one of Bombay Beach's elderly citizens after a stroke nearly puts him out of the habit. That tenet holds true for all the desolate town's inhabitants, their lives cursed by the once-promising Salton Sea on whose shore they eke out an existence. Formed when the Colorado River flooded the Salton Sink in 1905, the intensely saline and increasingly polluted body of water was once touted as southern California's newest resort destination. Now its bleak, post-apocalypitc-looking east coast is home to the few hundred who live in trailers and shabby homes huddled against the blazing heat, encroaching desert and stench of dead fish.
Set amidst this surreal moonscape of abandoned, desertified homes and carcass-strewn, salt-encrusted shores, the locals' abject poverty seems all the more extreme. Director Alma Har'el, making her feature debut, follows their hardships in incredibly intimate and beautiful handheld shots—made all the more moving by a score of Beirut and Bob Dylan. She continually subverts the rules of documentary filmmaking, portraying de facto main character Benny—an overly medicated grade school kid who wants to be a girl—with increasingly subjective shots and sounds until the film ends with an apparent fantasy sequence. Other moments, like a masked dance shared between local football star Cedric and his girlfriend, reinforce Bombay Beach's appearance of being a depressed American Anytown turned surreal dreamworld by its bizarre setting. Appropriately, this stylized aesthetic repeatedly evokes David Lynch's "Interview Project."
Har'el emphasizes the push and pull between Bombay Beach's profound strangeness and heartbreaking familiarity. That people can continue to live in that place seems incredible; that their stories are so bleak and weirdly, beautifully redemptive seems downright miraculous. Though it begins as a nightmarish spectacle of ecological ruin and economic depression, Bombay Beach finds in its human subjects not only the open wounds caused by those disasters, but also fleeting, mirage-like glimmers of hope.
Opens October 14 at IFC Center