A bad trip to Bombay Beach [Movie Review]

alma harel

Bombay Beach, a documentary about a poor community along the Salton Sea that was intended to be "the resort capital of the world."

The Salton Sea, 385 square miles of water created when the Colorado River overflowed in 1905, was marketed in the 1950s as “Bombay Beach,” the recreation capital of the world, complete with marinas, yachts and movie stars. Now that would have made an interesting film.

Instead, what we got was Bombay Beach,  yet another cinema verité-style documentary about uninteresting people living on the margins of society. The resort that once was is now an open desert littered with the detritus of society and its refuse.

Writer/director Alma Har’el follows the travails of Michael and Pamela Parish as they navigate the behavior of their young son Benny, a hyper-active bipolar child with anger issues on enough psychotropic drugs to choke an addled rock star. Imprisoned for two years for creating their own bombing range in the desert and storing an arsenal of illegal weapons, Michael and Pamela lament that life is now less interesting because they are no longer allowed to take the kids driving and shooting. Now under the eye of child protective services, who have twice removed the children from the home, Michael and Pamela try to improve their parenting skills, something they take very seriously.

Har’el also introduces us to CeeJay Thompson, a young African American student from South Central who has been sent to Bombay Beach to live with his father after his gangbanger cousin was shot and killed. CeeJay, recognizing the danger of the streets, is grateful for the chance to thrive in a less dangerous environment, especially one that may lead to his dream of receiving a college football scholarship. Seemingly more mature than his peers, CeeJay must keep his eye on that prize of being the first in his family to go to college, especially when he falls in love with a classmate. Getting his grades up to the necessary 2.0 will not be easy.

And then there is Red, whom some might describe as a cuddly 80-some-odd-year old survivor living on whiskey and cigarettes. I’d call him an old fashioned paranoid racist red-neck dispensing hypocritical advice on family love, considering that he abandoned his wife and two children some 60 years ago and hasn’t seen them since. I’d call them the lucky ones as they will never have to listen to him expound on inter-racial relationships or listen to his home spun homilies – “It takes a whole community to raise a child” or “life is just a habit.”

Har’el’s intentions may have been to use Red, the Parrish family and CeeJay as modern day examples of yesterday, today and tomorrow, but the end result is 90 painful minutes with some people you hope never to see again, with the exception of CeeJay who exemplifies hope, good grace and a better future. Certainly there are opposing opinions as this film has won numerous awards at various film festivals, including Tribeca and Berlin.

Nevertheless, if, in the future, I want to spend time with the hopeless (the Parish family) or the unredeemable (Red), I’ll read Faulkner, an equally painful and difficult task but ultimately more stimulating and life enhancing.

Opens Friday October 21 at the Laemmle Sunset 5.



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