California’s Salton Sea is a geological anomoly, a 350-square mile inland lake formed in the desert in 1905, the result of flooding from the Colorado River. By the ‘50s, the Salton Sea was being heavily promoted as a dream destination for middle-class families, with housing lots and suburban towns being built along the water to take advantage of this miraculous “sea in the desert”, a “recreation capitol of the world”.
As decades passed, however, the sea shrank and the towns withered, and now only a few residents cling to the virtual ghost towns in the area. Bombay Beach offers a fly-on-the-wall look at a few of those residents, whose lives seem circumscribed by a harsh environment and limited circumstances both economically and socially.
Striking visuals are prevalent in this film, but there’s no strong storyline; little narration is imposed on the relentlessly slice-of-life structure. The camera follows various residents of Bombay Beach as they eke out a precarious existence in the once-thriving but now desolate desert, with a special emphasis on the children. Many of the film’s most poignant moments center around them, as they run and play and laugh and do what children inevitably do, even in these bleak, windswept surroundings.
There are some compelling stories and characters here, but given the harsh circumstances and joyless lives on display, the movie at times feels uncomfortably like a freakshow. Few of the subjects in the film address the audience directly, so we’re left to watch their movements and eavesdrop on their conversations, lending a disconcerting, voyeuristic air to the proceedings.
One person who does speak directly, and at some length, to the audience is Dorran “Red” Forgy, an elderly man who is every bit as crusty and no-bullshit as you might expect from someone who’s lived decades in this harsh environment. Red runs a import-export business—that is, he imports cigarettes from the Indian reservation nearby, and exports them to the locals, one pack or one smoke at a time. It doesn’t make him much money, but Red’s not a guy who needs much money. As he puts it, “My father told me, many years ago: ‘The harder you work, the richer you will die’.”
Red is prone to such pithy epigrams. He also has the best line late in the film, when he is recovering from a stroke and trying to learn new habits to regain his strength. Wearily he informs us, “Life is nothing but a habit anyway.” We tend to believe him.
To the extent that the film has a central character, it’s Benny Parrish, a rambunctious five- or six-year-old whose high energy and gleefully mischievous demeanor has landed him in trouble with the local school. Benny is on a cocktail of medication that changes throughout the course of the movie—ritalin, respiridone, lithium—none of which seem to have much effect. More sobering still is the story of Benny’s parents, Mike and Pamela, who were jailed some years back for illegally possessing huge numbers of firearms and setting up their own ordinance testing grounds. After serving their time, they relocated to Bombay Beach, partly so they could maintain custody of Benny and his siblings.
The other major player here is Cedric “CeeJay” Thompson, a kid from South Central LA who moved to town following the shooting death of his cousin. CeeJay has big dreams—he wants to get a football scholarship, go to college, play in the NFL—but the obstacles are many and daunting. CeeJay is also preoccupied with his buddy’s sister Jessie, who is being blackmailed by her creepy ex-boyfriend, and this does little to help focus his energies.
The extent of the viewer’s interest in this film is directly proportional to his or her patience with slowly unfolding scenes of little obvious dramatic import. Watching this movie is something like studying a mosaic one piece at a time; only when taken in total does the overall picture come into view. Maybe not even then: none of the major plot threads, such as they are, are resolved, and after 75 minutes the film just stops rather than concludes.
Thanks goodness for the bonus scenes, then, which are many and satisfying. There is another 37 or so minutes of bonus material, ranging from the unnecessary (a trio of music videos directed by BomBay Beach director Alma Har’el) to the marginally interesting (about nine minutes of deleted scenes) to the crucial: a “Where are they now” set of scenes totalling 16 minutes, which serve to give the kind of closure that the fim itself lacks. Focusing on CeeJay, Red, and Benny’s family, the scenes vary from bittersweet to downright celebratory, lending an air of cautious optimism to a film that is otherwise very bleak indeed. There are also a few commentaries on selected scenes.
Bombay Beach is far from a typical movie; it’s even far from being a typical documentary. With its non-linear structure and absence of externally imposed narration, it’s possible so sit through long stretches wondering, “What exactly is the point here?” Ultimately, the film does cohere into something compelling, though perhaps not quite as powerful as the filmmaker would like us to believe.