2019 Milwaukee Film Festival – Review – BURNING CANE
If you want to feel old, BURNING CANE is the film for you. Written, directed, and edited by 19 year old Phillip Youmans before he graduated High School, it will make you both excited by the possibilities of this filmmaker and disappointed in your own accomplishments at a similar age.
BURNING CANE is set among the cane fields of the deep South and is steeped in atmosphere in every shot. The cane blows in the breeze. Insects hover and buzz. It’s stifling hot. And poverty is evident. Terence Malick seems like an obvious influence, but Phillip Youmans evokes that influence without ever sinking into homage or parody.
And people are struggling with their demons. The local preacher, played by an electric Wendell Davis, is struggling with alcohol in the wake of a lost wife. He can barely stay on the road at times. But, when he’s in the pulpit, he has direction and life again.
But, Wendell Davis is the counterpoint to the main story, of a family who is seemingly spiraling down with no signs of hope. Daniel (Dominique McClellan) is another man losing his battle with the bottle. Another man seemingly abandoned by his wife. And he’s dragging his young son Jeremiah down with him.
And it’s left to Daniel’s mother Helen ( Karen Kaia Livers ) to try to sort this out to the best of her ability. She clearly loves her son and grandson, but what’s to be done by someone who doesn’t want or accept help? How much suffering can she allow to endure before it’s hopeless? Can the circle be broken?
Those are the tough questions that the film grapples with. Which is impressive for a 19 year old. But, it probably doesn’t matter how young or old you are, it’s beyond anyone to really answer. Where BURNING CANE might not fully measure up is in bringing all of these various threads together into a cohesive whole. Wendell Davis is the most charismatic and electric actor of the bunch, but alas his story and character feels segregated from the clear center of the film.
Regardless, it’s still a mighty impressive debut. Especially by a 19 year old. I came out of the viewing impressed and expecting even greater things in the future.
BURNING CANE plays once more at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Thursday, October 31st at 1:30 pm at the Oriental Theater. The 2019 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from October 17, 2019 to October 31, 2019. Information and tickets can be found at Milwaukee Film’s website mkefilm.org.