Coming to Netflix on 6th November, Phillip Youmans’ feature directorial debut at the age of only 19, Burning Cane follows an aging mother struggling between her love for her son and her religious convictions. Starring: Karen Kaia Livers, Wendell Pierce, Dominique McClellan and Braelyn Kelly.
Taking on a project of this size is a daunting task for anyone, let alone a 19-year old, so that achievement in itself is impressive but to look at it with unbiased eyes, it has a number of faults. The cinematography however, is not one of them, it’s done beautifully by the director who wore many hats on this project, including writing and editing but being DP was by far his strongest role. The scene is set very well from the start, you’re immediately drawn into the rural, close community that the film surrounds; however, without that visual the first moments are purely a very elongated speech about treating the leading lady’s ailing dog and considering that story never comes back, it feels unnecessary, even if atmospheric. That heavy narration style soon starts to become a crutch, it leans so strongly on it that it’s a clear sign it’s trying much too hard in the wrong places and consequently losing sight of its goal and the emotions that should go along with it.
The story jumps in so quickly that there’s no time to invest in these characters, added to a style that’s quite stiff and it makes it difficult to become engaged in their lives. Its issues with connecting emotionally are amplified by the inconsistency of their actors, while Wendell Pierce gives a very solid performance and Karen Kaia Livers brilliantly portrays a woman that’s seemingly more fascinating than we get the chance to really explore, the crux of the story rests on the shoulders of Dominique McClellan, a rather inexperienced actor who can’t quite reach a convincing portrayal. Those difficulties are further hindered by the removed manner in which the film is directed, it forever feels like we’re kept at arms length from events, it would have hugely benefited from a more intimate style. You’re watching the events take place but rarely ever with the camera pointed at the characters when they talk, leaning deeper into that narration style, rather than trying to connect the audience with the characters, like listening to a conversation from the next room. Again, this is impeded by the fact that very little happens in its 77-minutes, a handful of events that could have potentially been more effectively portrayed in a short film. Some films can work extremely well with very little happening but it’s a limited list of filmmakers that succeed at it and trying to do so as your debut feature at such a young age, was too much to ask.
The film does step things up a notch with its story in the final moments, providing a satisfying ending to an unsatisfying film but it’s too late to round out the film as a whole. There are few surprises in store but it’s a real shame as you can see the raw talent and potential underneath that runs throughout but inexperience prevents that from being fully realised. Perhaps if the film had been made slightly further down the line for Youmans, it might have been a different story and yielded a more satisfying result. There’s a great story at hand, there simply isn’t enough exploration of the characters or intimacy with their experience, despite a visual style that strongly runs that tone.
Youmans’s skills as a cinematographer outweigh those of a director, writer and editor in Burning Cane, leading to something somewhat disappointing. The film only scratches the surface of what it was capable of, staying too far from its characters and lacking stronger emotion, at the same time as trying too hard to give you a deep and thoughtful narrative, which ends up feeling empty. Youmans clearly has real talent but he still has some work to do, he’ll undoubtedly get the deserved appreciation for this effort but if he can tighten up his skills then he’s genuinely poised to make something great which will be a delight to watch, sadly Burning Cane isn’t it.