Film Review: Burning Cane

Writer-director Phillip Youmans’ Burning Cane is an assured debut from the young filmmaker. The haunting climate is galvanised by two strong leads.

In the sugar cane fields of rural Louisiana, Helen focuses on her faith in spite of a troubled pastor. Her son, meanwhile, struggles with his drinking problem…

Burning Cane commences with two lengthy monologues. The first, a story is particularly arresting. The two monologues go a long way in establishing the characters and the setting. Filmmaker Phillip Youmans tells his story with minimal conversation. Instead the film focuses on monologues which are mostly sermons or stories, and several scenes with minimal dialogue. Conversations become more important later in Burning Cane, as the film moves towards the final third. The narrative unfolds at a languid pace, with Youmans preferring to focus on characters over action. 

The main theme of the film is the disruptive effect of alcoholism, on both the sufferer and the ones around them. Youmans focuses on how the disease impacts within the context of the setting; the small community, rural life, the reliance on religion all play a pivotal part. As Burning Cane reaches its climax, there is a particularly striking sequence with its overlaying of the preaching with distressing scenes accentuates the contrast between the fractured family and the confidence of the church. 

The film features lots of handheld camera.  This results in a sense of intimacy with the family. There are some very naturalistic scenes in the home; our presence as viewers feels like an intrusion at times. The only drawback of the reliance on a moving camera is some uneven lighting. The film is underlit on several occasions. Performances come across as authentic throughout. Karen Kaia Livers’ delivery is a particular highlight, whilst Wendell Pierce is a commanding force as Reverend Tillman.

Phillip Youmans takes an impartial approach to his characters, choosing to depict without judgement. Burning Cane is a promising showcase for the talents of Youmans.

Burning Cane is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.