Burning Cane ★★★½

Burning Cane tries to reconcile what is heard and experienced in church with what is seen and felt when Sunday service is over. That’s a daunting task for any film, let alone one made by a 17-year-old still in high school. Phillip Youmans’ writing-directing debut, a shocking accomplishment given his age, takes place in rural Louisiana, where a grandmother named Helen (Karen Kaia Livers) negotiates a fragile relationship with her alcoholic son (Dominique McLellan), fearful of what his own boy (Braelyn Kelly) is enduring under his care. Intercut with this narrative are scenes of Helen’s pastor (Wendell Pierce of The Wire) delivering a sweaty series of sermons. Sometimes the pastor’s words overlap with images of Helen back at home; at other times, quick shots from her home life visually interrupt his message. Youmans works in the tradition of Terrence Malick—not only because of the spiritual concerns, but also in his use of voiceover narration and extensive nature imagery. At the same time, Burning Cane recalls Charles Laughton’s great, Bible-soaked The Night of the Hunter when the righteous Helen, in silhouette, holds a shotgun in her hands. Youmans clearly has his own eye, as well (even if some of the sequences are a bit too underlit for effect). There’s a moment in a car where the camera catches a drip of rain on the windshield, glowing orange from a streetlight; Youmans zooms in on it until it’s as big as the moon. As for that question of reconciling Sunday morning and Saturday night, it’s further complicated by the fact that the pastor has a habit of driving drunk to the Piggly Wiggly. Burning Cane doesn’t resolve things as much as it makes poetry of them, right from its opening shot of the radiant beams of the sun shining upon the drifting smoke of a smoldering sugarcane field. Sometimes it seems as if there’s no escape from the stain of sin.

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