Burning Cane was the talk of the Tribeca Film Festival this past April when it won the festival’s top prize. Not only that but it’s director, first-time filmmaker, Phillip Youmans became the first Black director to win the Founders Award and the youngest director to have a feature film shown at Tribeca, at 19 years old.
The story follows Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers) an aging mother who struggles between her religious convictions and the love of her alcoholic son. The film also stars Wendell Pierce as Reverend Tillman, a reverend whose alcoholism interferes with his ability to command over his congregation.
After watching the film it becomes readily apparent where all of the hype for Youmans and his debut feature comes from. The Louisiana native and NYU student began working on Burning Cane (he wrote, directed, produced, and edited it) when he was only 17, but throughout the 78 minute run time nothing from the film would give way to the notion that Youmans is new to this.
Some are already dubbing him an auteur for his unique style. The film is filled with shaky, handheld camera shots, rather than controlled static ones, which add a more natural and realistic quality to it. Youmans also often shot from strange angles; between a door jamb, beside a drinking glass, behind a shoulder or an arm, from below the church pews, angles that make the audience feel as if we’re watching the events unfold covertly; like we’re getting a glimpse at something we’re not supposed to see. And often, the more anxiety-inducing scenes in the film do feel like private moments that have been interrupted by an unnamed presence.
And there are several anxiety-inducing scenes. They are subtle in their appearance and sneak up on you only once you’ve finished the film and realized you haven’t taken a deep breath since Wayne begins her monologue on treating her dog for mange. Of course, when exploring themes like religion and toxic masculinity there is already a layer of heaviness present without the added boost of lighting and music to heighten the mood. Youmans doesn’t shy away from the realness or the complexities of these subjects either.
Half of the film focuses on the relationship between Helen’s unemployed son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) and his son Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly) who watches his father descent into alcoholism and is often made to be a participant in it as well. It’s a dynamic that is hard to understand and equally as painful to watch. It raises many questions to the audience, but never answers them, which makes it all the more sad to have witnessed.
The other half of the film focuses on Helen and her friendship with Reverend Tillman and the church. She’s witness to the destruction of alcohol in both these men’s lives and yet is powerless to help them. This parallels her situation with her dog, whose mange she tries to treat in a myriad of ways to no avail. For Helen, it doesn’t seem like there are enough prayers to pray, hymns to sing, or scriptures to consult to fix all of her problems.
A mark of the film that stayed with me is that it is mostly silent. Dialogue is sparse and sometimes during conversations, the dialogue switches to voiceover and the characters can be heard, but their lips aren’t seen moving. But the heart of the film is more about what isn’t said than what is said. The lack of dialogue forces the audience to absorb more of the visual cues; to really pay attention to what Youmans is showing them. These are real people with real stories and he’s forcing you to see their flawed, complex nature in all its glory. And when he sees fit that something is said, not a word is wasted. Whether it’s someone humming along to “This Little Light of Mine” or Reverend Tillman delivering a sermon with enough force to knock the church roof down, the audience waits with bated breath to hear it. And for his chilling and soulful performance, Pierce was awarded the prize for Best Actor in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film at Tribeca.
Burning Cane premieres in select theatres in New York on October 25th and Los Angeles November 8th and streams on Netflix starting November 6th.