The Salton Sea is one of the most unusual places in America: an inland lake accidentally created when heavy rainfall caused the Colorado River to breach its manmade banks in 1905, this saline oasis in the California desert was once touted as a holidaymakers’ paradise, but is now a crumbling refuge for outcasts, oddballs and social escapees.
Video artist Alma Har’el’s semi-documentary follows three figures whose lives have left them washed up on Bombay Beach, one of the sea’s largest resort towns. Benny Parrish is a hyperactive, hyper-imaginative ten-year-old whose parents have re-established custody following a jail sentence for hoarding explosives. CeeJay is a refugee from the LA gangland with dreams of becoming a NFL star. And Red is an elderly itinerant, a rambunctious, racist roughneck who seems to exist entirely on whiskey and cigarettes.
Har’el’s film is at times bizarrely uplifting, at others crushingly sad: witness her achingly sympathetic treatment of Benny, whose doctors prescribe a dubious cocktail of mood stabilisers and anti-psychotics in an effort to keep him calm. A series of dramatic recreations can be rewarding but also amateurish: one scene documenting an ex-lovers’ quarrel feels ghoulish and invasive. But this is a film about sound and image more than story, and here Har’el triumphs: the score by Beirut’s Zac Condon – punctuated by three perfectly chosen Bob Dylan songs – is quietly lovely, while the crisp, artful photography, often drenched in rich magic-hour sunlight, is simply breathtaking.