LFF 2019: Burning Cane – Review

Release date – 6th November, Cert – N/A, Run-time – 1 hour 17 minutes, Director – Phillip Youmans

A Mother (Karen Kaia Livers) tries to deal with the impact that alcohol is having on both her son (Dominique McClellan) and the priest (Wendell Pierce) of the church that she attends

There are many things that are likely to slowly pace around your mind when you finish watching Burning Cane. However, for me, the main thing that came to mind as I reflected on the previous 77 minutes was the fact that this micro-budget, highly personal and considerate film, was written and directed by a 19 year old. In his directorial debut Phillip Youmans takes inspiration from his own Baptist childhood in the south of America. Through the use of extended close-up’s, monologues and the effect of silence Youmans manages to create a deeply personal, yet engaging, piece that brings the viewer in for a calm and peaceful, yet vocal, feature.

While we don’t specifically follow one character during the short 77 minute run-time of the piece there are three main figures that we see trying to make their way through difficult times. The first is Helen (Karen Kaia Livers) a mother who tries to stick as closely to her Baptist beliefs as she can, no matter how bad things get for her. In the films opening she describes how her dog is getting old and ill. While many claim that it should be put down, or even shot between the eyes, she believes that there’s still hope that it could make it through its illness. However, it seems that where her hope does dwindle is when it comes to her son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan). Daniel is unemployed and doesn’t seem to be putting much effort into doing anything about it. Instead he spends his time slumped on the sofa drinking the day away, ignoring his own son, Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly), or getting angry over almost nothing. Therefore causing tensions within the family.

The third figure that we see also has an issue with alcohol, having turned to it after the death of his wife. Wendell Pierce’s Reverend Tillman is possibly the most captivating figure of the film. Through his monologues and church sermons he easily gives the most powerful and passionate performance of the entire film, in a film that is filled with a number of strong performances, from a relatively small cast. Tillman struggles with controlling his alcohol consumption, despite Helen trying to help him and making sure that he’s alright he continues to drink, almost beginning to cause trouble during his own church services.

Throughout the film there is very little music played during each scene. The use of silence, while at some points becoming almost haunting, helps to create a much more natural feel that brings the viewer into a world filled with flawed characters, and in many ways one that we therefore recognise. This is an honest portrayal of the lives of many people. Struggling, feeling helpless. Trying to help those around them even though they can’t seem to, or don’t know how to, help themselves. The long monologues that characters get showing this. Not speaking to others, or the bedroom or bathroom mirror (where they can possibly get even five seconds of privacy away from their demons), simply the thoughts that go round their heads spoken aloud for the audience to hear. Thus creating that further personal feel. Not just for Youmans, but for the characters too, and for the audience watching the film.

There’s very little plot to the film, more a selection of loosely connected ideas. However, they are basic ideas that gradually become increasingly detailed as we learn more and more about each individual figure that we see. Feeling for them, feeling scared for them as the minimalistic detail of the cornfield scenery – constantly stretching for miles and miles, almost creating a feeling of entrapment – compliments the immense detail of characters. Some of which we begin to worry for, and possibly feel a slight sense of fear for as they find themselves of even greater struggle of conflict with themselves, those around them and most importantly their morals and beliefs.

There’s no denying the impact and effect that Burning Cane has. While it can seem slow and ponderous at times it has a lot to say. Youmans clearly pours all his passion and energy into this thoughtful and deeply detailed piece. Bringing the audience in and allowing them to feel a part of the film, and connect with the characters, whether for better or worse. It all adds to the effect that the film has. Not knowing where it will go, taking it’s time and making sure to slowly guide the viewer along with it. It’s truly something rather unique and special.

Burning Cane is in a number of ways an achievement in itself, not just because it was written and directed by a 19 year old, Wendell Pierce’s roaring performance being one of them. Everything comes together to create a detailed, engaging and thoughtful piece about people being caught up in the middle of a war between their morals and their demons. It might seem slow at times, but overall this is an interesting and worthwhile watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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