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‘Bombay Beach’ Offers Poetry and Prose

“I wish for mom and dad to love me all year long.” On his birthday, seven-year-old Benny Parrish is surrounded by his family and young friends. He blows out candles on his cake, he presses his face into a plate full of ice cream, then smiles for his mother’s camera, his nose and chin smeared with chocolate. And then he and the other kids begin to play: they wrestle and kick at one another, roll on he floor and laugh. Benny admires his own skinny chest, his sister cools herself a fan colored like an American flag, his father Mike throws darts. And then everyone in the room begins to dance.

The light remains low and the camera in this early scene in Bombay Beach remains close. Bodies sway and jerk, faces blur, and shadows fill the frame, a swirl of activity that indicates the film’s mix of documentary and performance. Working with her subjects to tell their stories, director Alma Har’el finds a mix of poetry and prose, truth and aspiration. The film — which is screening on 5 March at the Doc Yard, followed by a Q&A with Har’el — looks at life in Bombay Beach, a tiny town on the edge of the Salton Sea in the southern California desert.

Once pitched as a paradise — “Palm Springs-by-the-Sea” — Bombay Beach is now impoverished, offering residents little in the way of hope. Benny doesn’t know what the place used to be; he barely remembers his own childhood. When he was just three weeks old in 2002, Mike and Benny’s mother Pamela were arrested on suspicion of terrorism and imprisoned for two years. They’d been stockpiling weapons and explosives, recalls a cop from Niland (18 miles from Bombay Beach, the film notes). “The Parrish family liked to play army,” but it was just after 9/11, so their particular collection, and the explosions they generated, drew the attention of authorities, their arrest recorded for a local TV report.

Now that the family is reunited, Pamela and Mike need to be sure “not to go riding in the desert and shoot our guns,” she says, underlining that if Child Protective Services is called in again, they could lose the kids permanently. She helps her children understand the situation, and what to say if the sheriff comes by. “We’re not doing anything wrong and our house is being cleaned,” she says. “If they come, all you need to do is tell ’em the truth: you’re happy, you have a house, and you’re being taken care of.”

At the same time, Benny contends with his recent diagnosis as bipolar. Pamela keeps track of his medication, explaining, “You know when you run around a lot and can’t stop moving and are very hyper? This,” she says, pointing to the container of Ritalin, “calms you down.” Benny nods, and she goes on to describe other meds, including Risperdal and Abilify. When, some days later, Benny has an adverse reaction, she’s horrified: he can’t walk, he hits his head on the sink. At the Health Clinica de Salude in El Centro (51 miles from Bombay Beach), the doctor can’t find trouble in the EKG. He advises her to return to the doctor who prescribed the medications, and in the meantime, keep Benny on them.

The limits of life in Bombay beach most often have to do with this sort of dynamic: it’s a world unto itself, resembling other worlds but also separate. CeeJay Thompson is a transplant from South Central (173 miles from Bombay Beach), a high school football player with dreams of the NFL, or at least to be the first in his family to get to college. He remembers the decision to move him to Bombay Beach, after his cousin was shot in LA (family video shows the service, the tearful mothers, and the cousin in an open coffin).

Now, CeeJay is working hard on the field and at school (he’s well aware that he needs to improve his GPA in order to get to the next level). He’s also met Jessie, sister to his best friend and former girlfriend to Brentley. He’s mad enough that he’s been texting CeeJay (“He called me nigger,” reports CeeJay, “jigaboo and a porch monkey”) and threatening Jessie to post photos of her on the internet. Still, the new couple finds some measure of joy in each other: she watches him play, he gives her presents, and they dance. Like other dance scenes in the film — staged with Har’el, accompanied by music by Bob Dylan or the band Beirut — this one offers another possibility, a place at once elsewhere and here.

Still another elsewhere is embodied by 80something Red, once a troublemaking oil field worker, now estranged from his family for some 48 years and living alone. “I more or less take care of myself,” he says. He thinks sometimes about his oldest daughter, whom he admits he probably drove away, “I have a bad thought of a young women marrying certain nationalities,” he explains. “Blacks and whites should not mix as long as a woman is of childbearing age.” The camera pans past him to some graffiti on the wall behind him, “Crackers 4 Crackers.” Like CeeJay, like Benny, Red is a product of his environment, symptomatic and resistant. He imagines another life, barely, but he’s also immersed in the one he has.

RATING 8 / 10