Located deep in the California desert and perched on the edge of the Golden State's largest lake (the Salton Sea), the region known as Bombay Beach was supposed to be a postwar tourist hot spot. Instead, the area became something of a wasteland, populated by sunbaked kooks, social misfits and financially challenged everyday folks. You could imagine an ambitious documentarian taking one look and thinking, My God, this place is a perfect metaphor for the ass end of the American Dream! Where's my camera with the Hipstamatic setting?
Pardon the cynicism regarding Alma Har'el's abstract-vrit look at some of the denizens---a frail racist coot, an African-American teen, a fractured but affectionate family trying to hold things together---who call this bleak landscape home. But it's hard not to feel that the primary takeaway is that one person's hardscrabble life is merely another's art project. Its poetic, free-form interludes add a dreamlike dimension to the doc-making, but once Har'el starts choreographing folks to Beirut and Bob Dylan songs against magic-hour backgrounds, she's not imbuing them with dignity or a mythic sense of being; you feel like she's using poor people as extras in a music video. Poverty is nearly treated as a state of purity, and though Bombay Beach never fully slides into noble pity, condescension or exploitation, it comes perilously close to all three at times. The film neither buries nor praises its subjects. It's too busy using them as props.
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