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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 10.01.19] drama

Burning Cane caught my attention because of Wendell Pierce. The actor, who I had seen for years in bit parts, really caught my attention during a recent turn in the TV legal drama ”Suits“ so the opportunity to see him flex his muscle in a drama was too irresistible to pass up.

Written, directed, shot, and edited by Phillip Youmans, Burning Cane tells the story of two men dealing with grief in similar ways: by drinking. In one story there is Pierce who plays a pastor who drowns his sorrows in drink, and in the other is Daniel (Dominique McClellan), an unemployed father who spends his days drinking and looking after his young son.

Youmans’ storytelling style is unconventional, oscillating between the two men and their stories with little rhyme or reason and incorporating moments from other characters’ lives in a way that doesn’t always work in the narrative but which helps to create a mood for the work. And that’s one of the most beautiful things of this film: the way it feels. There’s a mood and flow to the story that, though it doesn’t always make narrative sense, has an emotional flow.

Building on other notable films which tell African American stories, notably Killer of Sheep and Ballast, Youmans develops a lyricism that carries the film even when the plot and some of the performances fall short. But not Pierce. He is fierce here, a grieving, angry shell of a man, and his performance cuts through most of the rest, elevated by the added fact that Youmans provides some incendiary sermons which Pierce delivers with the full power and conviction of a real pastor.

While overall the film is a bit disjointed and rough around the edges, with transitions that don’t always work and voiceover that feels unnecessary, there’s no disputing that Youmans is a talented filmmaker who, with his first feature film, has shown great promise.

Much has been made of the fact that Youmans was still in high school when he completed Burning Cane, but focusing too much on this does a disservice to the film which is notable not only because of who made it but despite of it.

Burning Cane will be available on Netflix November 6.

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