Even with just a 75-minute runtime, watching writer-director Phillip Youmans’ feature film debut, “Burning Cane,” a meditation on compromised faith among black Southerners, is an arduous experience. It’s dark (both narratively and visually), sluggish, and relentlessly bleak. But this all seems to be the filmmaker’s intention.
Inspired by his own upbringing in the Southern Baptist church, Youmans offers an unfiltered look at black protestant life in the hollows of Louisiana. Just as he does with each character, Youmans launches the film by dropping the audience into Helen Wayne’s (Karen Kaia Livers) story already in progress. From her lengthy opening monologue, we gather that her dog is very sick and covered with rashes, but she refuses to give up faith in his recovery.
She’s frustrated that professionals want her to put him down, or “shoot him between the eyes” as she echoes with disgust. We listen to Helen bemoan these circumstances as we watch the heavyset, middle-aged woman stagger from her drably lit kitchen to the field behind her house to care for her ailing hound. It’s a puzzling introductory scene that requires a lot of patience from the audience, as it sets up a film filled with scattered prose highlighting people whose lives are encumbered by great disappointment despite their faith in God.
Helen’s dejection doesn’t end with her dying pup: As we learn in that same harangue, she’s worried about her long-unemployed son Daniel (Domonique McClellan) spending long hours at home during the day alone with his son Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly). When Youmans cuts to Daniel and Jeremiah, we can see why Helen is so distressed. Daniel is spiraling at home, hitting the bottle hard and requiring his young son to do the same on what appears to be a daily basis. We watch as Jeremiah tries to busy himself with his coloring books while Daniel intermittently grunts at him to take another swig of brown liquor.
Every so often, this routine is interrupted by Helen calling on the phone to lash out at Daniel about him not looking for work or not coming around to see her. Or when Jeremiah’s mom, whose face is awkwardly never clearly shown, storms home from a long day at work and is apparently too consumed by her own annoyance with Daniel to notice the alcohol on her son’s breath. Her justifiable irritation is met with Daniel’s fist.
Then there is Rev. Tillman (Wendell Pierce), who’s also leaning on alcohol in the wake of his wife’s passing. Like Daniel, drinking has turned him volatile, barking at his female subordinates at the church — including Helen, who already has enough on her plate. But Tillman’s drunken escapades while behind the wheel of his car or at home are like distant memories as he stumbles up to the pulpit to face his captive congregation with a riveting sermon that is met with thunderous praise.
Many of these scenes, as interesting as they may sound, do not feature the kind of dialogue that can really bring them to life and expound on the jagged plot. Outside Tillman’s homily, made magnificent and effectively hypocritical through Pierce’s gripping performance, the discourse falls flat and strangely trivial at times given the context. That’s exacerbated by Ruby Kline and Youmans’ unpolished editing, in which nearly every cut is at best noticeable and at worst distracting.
Youmans was in his final years of high school when he wrote, directed, co-edited, and shot “Burning Cane,” which lends to its shabby, amateurish style while potentially underscoring the mundaneness of each character’s existence (though not very successfully). Though he wore several hats throughout the production of the film with varying success, Youmans does show promise as a cinematographer.
Coincidentally, he had hired someone else to shoot the film, but that person had to drop out due to budget constraints. That turn of events allowed Youmans to reckon thoughtfully with his Southern upbringing by being a bystander, boldly shooting difficult scenes as though the camera is another character in the scene.
For instance, when Jeremiah’s mother rushes out of the house, leaving him with Daniel, the camera shrinks down to the windowsill and peers through the shades as she speeds off in her car, rendering the audience as helpless as the little boy. When Tillman careens at the pulpit as the choir literally sings his praises, Youmans places the camera on the elevated platform with them in all their jubilee, encouraging us to extol a deeply flawed man as well.
Perhaps that is ultimately Youmans’ goal: to force us to stand by idly as sinners put on airs in the house of the Lord. Or as broken men like Daniel pass their harmful vices on to the next generation. Or as a woman becomes so overwhelmed by the male toxicity around her that she completely turns her back on God, culminating in a violent twist.
Though most thoughtfully explored through the film’s inspired cinematography (shaky camera aside), Youmans ultimately grapples with several tough themes that center the black Baptist South in a way that is rarely seen on screen. Even so, the inept editing and screenplay ultimately bring down “Burning Cane.”
“Burning Cane” launches Nov. 6 on Netflix.