Salton Sea, a salt-water lake in the middle of the deserts of California, used to be the place to be several decades ago. Nowadays, it stands as a testament as to how time diffuses luster. The once pristine beaches that catered to the wealthiest of Americans are now graves to thousands of fish that perish because of the increasing salinity and toxicity of the lake. As it is, the area surrounding Salton Sea is that post-apocalyptic paradise existing in this pre-apocalyptic world. It remains to be this place of very elusive beauty, where glistening during sunsets are masked by abject sights of poverty.
Alma Har'el's Bombay Beach, without glossing over the pertinent issues that surround the subject surroundings, focuses on the lives of several individuals who seem to approximate the veiled charms of the place they call home. The film is loosely structured in a way that it does not follow any narrative arc but instead rides on an atmosphere of feel-good but never doubtful sentimentality. As a collage of portraits of various lives struggling in a presumably inhospitable landscape, Bombay Beach is joyously uplifting, which is somewhat pleasantly strange in this current cinematic landscape of popular doom and despair.
Music is an important element of Bombay Beach. The dances, mostly choreographed but performed by Har'el's subjects with hardly any expectations of perfection, however, are essential. Volumes are communicated when a hard-boiled old-timer delivers a graceful gesture of unlikely romance in his awkward waltz, or when budding lovers interpret their newly formed affair with an evocative number. Benny, youngest son of the Parrish couple, whose story of being imprisoned for blowing up bombs in the desert as a pastime is an extraordinary subject for another documentary, takes part in this lovely group dance with other kids which summarize the endearing awkwardness of his fateful existence in the community. In a wondrously edited, lovingly executed and carefully directed sequence, the film transported its audience, although temporarily, to a place where innocence in the midst of immense adversity is not some lunatic's fantasy.
That Har-el was able to draw inspiration from people who would commonly be regarded as the dregs of society, as pinnacles of human hopelessness, and jokes of cruel destiny, and was able to visually manifest beauty from a place where it has long faded is evidence of her ability to mix heart with directorial mettle. It is that unrestrained but sincere optimistic depiction of the human spirit that makes Har'el's modestly produced but magnanimously crafted documentary such an indelible experience.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)