Netflix Now: Burning Cane (2019) - Reviewed

19 year old writer/director/cinematographer Phillip Youmans explodes on the scene with Burning Cane and immediately makes his name one to watch. In his debut film (which won him the Founder’s Prize at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival), Youmans tackles religion, poverty and the violence of men with some of the most haunting imagery you’ll see all year.

Taking place somewhere in rural Louisiana, Burning Cane centers on Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), an older black woman and the various men she consistently finds herself taking care of. The men in question are her son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan) and her pastor, Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce). Both men are violent alcoholics and when we meet them, are spiraling dangerously out of control.

The way Youmans frames the various struggles is so expressive and dreamlike, almost like you’re seeing it from the POV of Helen’s grandson, Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly). Jeremiah almost never speaks but observes instead. His father, Daniel, is often framed in off kilter angles, sometimes on his abdomen in frame. He towers over his son, usually drunk, while Jeremiah eats or colors. Scenes of Daniel running to vomit in the bathroom are shot through a hazy filter again conveying the essence of a memory, the kind one would like to forget.

It’s powerful stuff, made even more staggering when you consider Youmans was only 17 when he shot this. In making this film, he took on many of its responsibilities as most people who make a movie at a young age do. But what separates this debut from feeling like a student film is how assured he is with his camera. Nothing is wasted and every movement is with purpose. The deliberate pace makes for a quiet, elegiac quality that most people twice Youmans’ age wouldn’t be able to pull off. It’s the kind of film a director decades his senior would make while trying to reckon with a childhood he’s either blocked out or didn’t understand.

The rage and violence of men isn’t only parsed through fatherhood, Youmans expertly weaves it into how it intersects into religion as well. Religion can be largely patriarchal and thats never more apparent than in Wendell Pierce’s towering performance as Reverend Tillman. His front facing persona is that of a pious man. He preaches the virtues of living modestly and he reprimands the secretaries at his church that parents like them are ruining the country for not following God the right way. But Tillman is angry and an alcoholic. In a poignant scene, he tries to drive home while heavily intoxicated. When Helen confronts him, he becomes furious then violent. Youmans keenly interlocks the hypocritical duality of men who position themselves at thought leaders. Tillman is weak and deep down he knows it. Pierce plays this to perfection, locating a deep sadness underneath all of his fiery bluster.

Youmans never lays any of this on too thick, instead breaking things up into fragmented, haunted memories. You’re forced to relive moments in time through a nightmare you can’t wake up from. But as fragmented and mosaic-like as it all is, Youmans has a strong sense of narrative convention. Early in the film, Helen recounts a story to us about a dog she once had. The dog, Jojo, had mange and Helen tried a variety of remedies to cure the dog but nothing worked. The memory is a stark foreshadowing of the strife yet to come. As hard as she tries, Helen can’t seem to cure the disease in her life and every time it’s tamped down, it comes back more virulently.

Youmans’ tapestry is astonishing. Even if some of the film feels disjointed, there’s never any wavering in his craftsmanship. At a sparse 78 minutes, he creates a web of memories that grab hold of you and force you to observe. By the time the final shot comes, both terrifying and cathartic, you’re left catching your breath. Whatever Phillip Youmans does next will be something special. This debut is major.

--Brandon Streussnig