Off the deep end of poverty porn, there seems little good to be had from this gritty tour of a destitute corner of America.
The image of America’s Salton Sea is unshakable. Those who see it never forget it. It is this strangely flat and glossy body of water with shores that look phony and manmade. There is a reason for that, the entire lake is manmade. It is even more bizarre that the lake was not made on purpose, it was made by accident.
At least, so the story goes. A large public works project went awry and millions of gallons from the Colorado River flooded a desert. Presto, a lake is born.
Making lemonade out of lemons, local real estate vultures pounced on the instant waterfront and created high-end recreational property. The new lake was teaming with beautiful Californians and their speedboats, water skiing from shore to shore in the middle of the desert.
Unfortunately, once the damage was repaired, the lake had no inlet or outlet. The water was simply trapped there and, with time, has become super-saturated with salts and minerals. That is what gives it its haunted, dead look. It is saltier than the oceans and has become dreadful to smell. The beaches are lined with dead fish that go through some strange life cycle that seems to leave the shore continuously covered with a new batch.
If shore birds are aware of the cornucopia, perhaps they avoid the smorgasbord because of the mineral content of the seafood.
Bombay Beach is one of a dozen communities surrounding the Salton Sea. As one could imagine, real estate is cheap in the area. In fact, anyone could move there and build a house and the actual landowner might never know. It will come as a surprise to most Americans that the area has actual fire and emergency services and public schools.
These services probably are there for the farm workers who populate the area, more than for the residents of Bombay.
There have been many previous films set in the Salton Sea area. It is mysterious and more than a little scary. Nothing seems to live there except urban refugees running from their wives, husbands, the law, or just their past. This film records several families and a few loners as they go about their daily and nightly routines.
This is the stuff of hermits, recluses, the very poor and the very disturbed. In some cases these are hippies who are living a vaguely “back-to-the-earth” life style. In most cases they are bitter, unsocialized and mal-adjusted people who simply want to be left alone.
The family of Mike Parish becomes the center of a homespun militia. At night they set off high explosive charges and plant homemade mines that might go unnoticed for years before detonating under somebody’s feet. The local fire department comes and goes, responding to reports of unclaimed explosives.
A rag-tag army assaults the deserts, shooting hulks of abandoned cars in a drunken, drug-addled post 9-11 rage against the world; imagining the heroic, honor-bound battles its soldiers will never have.
After his parents go to prison, son Benny Parrish is home-schooled by his foster parents. He alternates his studies with trips to the doctor to check on the diet of mood-altering pharmaceuticals that it takes to keep him from climbing the walls.
CeeJay, a young black adult from South Central Los Angeles has come to Bombay to get away from his neighborhood. His cousin was shot to death in an execution style murder. He has been through the courts too many times already.
The next time could mean life in prison, or death on the streets. Bombay is his last hope and he lives in a make-believe world in his own shack, waiting for a plan for a new future.
Red buys and sells bootlegged cigarettes for living in Bombay. A child of the depression era “dust bowl” of Kansas he is a drifter who never expected, or received, anything but the worst from human society. In Bombay he finds a similar frame of mind: do not expect anything and you will not be disappointed.
Director Alma Har'el was in Coachella working on a music video for the band Beirut when she became fascinated by this area and decided to make this film.
Beirut combines their music with that of Bob Dylan and original work by Zach Condon to put together a great sound track, but it not enough to save this film from hopelessness. As fascinating as the subject matter might be for strangers, it is no surprise to most Americans that not all of our streets are paved with gold.
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Directed by: Alma Har'el
Release Date: Tribeca FF April 20, 2011—No Planned Release
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 80 minutes