I heard about this film likely in the same way that most everyone has: through Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who has been singing this film’s praises from her Twitter account for weeks, for her followers and those adjacent to discover. As I learned, Burning Cane was written, directed and edited by Phillip Youmans, who was 17 and still in high school at the time of filming. Even more than Steven Soderbergh gathering all of his resources gained from decades of building a reputation to shoot a film on an iPhone and argue that it’s so easy to make a movie nowadays (I still love Unsane, but it needed to be said), Youmans has an inspiring story behind this production.
For a film with an under eighty minute runtime, Burning Cane certainly takes its time. This is the most admirable quality of Youmans’s writing and direction. From the first scene we are immersed in the lives of a small Louisiana community that feels like a corner of the earth on its last leg, but certainly still kicking. We begin with narration from a woman explaining her dog’s deteriorating condition from mange and her refusal to kill him. It sets the tone and creates an image that reverberates through the rest of the film’s twisting and turning narratives. Then, the most comforting Southern image takes over: the sermon. The choir is on fire and Reverend Tillman isn’t far behind, but this curtain is quickly pulled back. We are introduced to Tillman outside of his working hours, a man believing he is a million steps closer to heaven when he is really that far behind the times. He blames his generation’s supposed complicitness for the young people’s dismissiveness of his word. The line that cements the film you’re in for has to be when the preacher growls, “I don’t blame the children. I blame y’all. For telling them they can wear dresses when they got a penis between their legs.”
But there’s more to this story than a sick dog and sick preacher. There’s a man losing agency in the life of his son, as his overbearing but well meaning mother threatens to take him away from him. These stories make up the core of Burning Cane, and the entire experience is incredibly immersive. You feel inserted into the lives of this community. You feel their thoughts and hear their world with incredible naturalistic sound design. There are many extensive moments of characters just sitting around that allow you to take in every aspect of their world.
The filmmaking is immersive and the actors cement themselves in their characters, but the film does falter quite a bit in its pacing. For all that the film succeeds in bringing you into its world, it feels like it isn’t sure what to do once it gets you there. A lack of narrative thrust can certainly be compelling with strong enough dialogue and performances to watch, but Burning Cane sadly isn’t that strong. The introductions to the multiple story threads make the film feel unsure of itself, since it moves to another story as soon as it has one set up. The story of Tillman is certainly the most compelling as we see his crisis of faith and the way he has treated other people come back to haunt him.
In what’s easily the most compelling narrative turn, the curtain is put back into place, in a way. We get another extensive sermon scene with Tillman, again at the top of his game. With this, the film argues that the rose-tinted glasses we tend to put on in public, especially in places like church, can be a necessary tool to get by. People living crappy lives in crappy places around crappy people sometimes need a reminder that the world isn’t always crap. Even if the people who help to remind them of that are far from perfect, there is value in the reassurance that not everything is falling apart all the time.
Burning Cane has a lot on its mind, and Youmans has certainly made a promising start. While the execution is messy, it definitely has some moments where it shines. Here’s to hoping that more of his artistic mind and visions will be brought to life for us to see.