Best of 2019: Burning Cane Paints Louisiana with a Thoughtful Specificity

Burning Cane
Photo courtesy of Netflix Film

Burning Cane is the third in our series of the Best Southern Movies of 2019. It is available to watch on Netflix. Next week we will reveal the last work of 2019 that best understands the South.

By Reid Ramsey

“They have no right to tell me when Jojo needs to die. Only the Lord can do that,” Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers) says of her sick dog in the opening monologue of Burning Cane. She’s tried everything to save this dog from his mange. People around Helen constantly try to give her remedies: lemon juice, motor oil, honey, prayer. Nothing works and after a while Jojo has mostly given up and refuses to move more than necessary. Helen explains this whole painstaking process of care in the opening voice-over to set-up the rest of the film. Burning Cane isn’t about taking care of a dog; it’s a film about the vicious, destructive cycles in which people are trapped and the impossibility of fully ridding oneself of the mange.

Helen lives in rural Louisiana with only her dog for company at home. She attends a Southern Baptist church with the fiery, alcohol-fueled Pastor Tillman (Wendell Pierce) at the helm. Her son (Dominique McClellan), who often visits her, is an unemployed, alcoholic father who spends his days teaching his young son to drink and dance. The story is told as a series of vignettes backed by voiceover, impassioned speeches, and poetic style. 

Shot while writer and director Phillip Youmans was still in high school, Burning Cane gained quick recognition in 2019 not only for being made by such a young filmmaker, but even more so for being such a stylistically mature film made by a young filmmaker. Teenagers often desire to watch institutions they grew up with tumble (an idea from which great art can also be made), but Youmans approaches Southern Baptist culture in Louisiana with such nuance and care it feels more like a filmmaker who has already spent a lifetime reflecting on the good and bad that surrounds communities such as this.

While young filmmakers tend to wear their influences obnoxiously, Youmans has clear favorite filmmakers (most noticeably Terrence Malick), yet his desire to emulate others never takes priority over the story he’s telling. His decision to use so much voiceover doesn’t ever feel like copying a different style, it feels wholly his own. Perhaps it’s because of the way he shoots Burning Cane with a unique style or it could be the specificity of the voiceovers. 

I can’t pretend to fully understand the perspective of Burning Cane (it’s the first film I’ve covered for Southern Sights that’s pretty far out of my realm of experience), but the movie feels grounded and authentic in a way great works of literature often do. Youmans creates a world that feels like he’s lived in or at the very least completely understands. It’s a simple and specific story with no more than a few characters, but the themes of cyclical abuse and alcoholism are vast and universal. 

The scenes in Burning Cane are challenging, sometimes drawn-out, and rhythmic to a point of drowsiness. It’s right on message with the movie, though, that we could all be put to sleep by the rhythmic, destructive cycles we’re watching as bystanders. In the end, the movie offers no call-to-action, but instead a calling-out of our lackadaisical voyeurism that reinforces these systems. 

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