When I was seventeen years old, I was attending a Texas High School and struggling to figure out how people asked other people out for a date. When Phillip Youmans was seventeen years old, he directed a motion picture entitled Burning Cane starring Wendell Pierce that managed to not only debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, but also win the festival’s equivalent to a Best Picture award. Well played Phillip Youmans, well played. It’s utterly impressive to see someone manage to create any piece of cinema, let alone one garnering this much acclaim, at such a young age, but Burning Cane has plenty of positive attributes to talk about beyond the age of its director.
Burning Cane follows the lives of three people living in Lousiana, each of them struggling with their own demons. There’s Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers), whose plight in the opening sequence of struggling to help rid her dog of fleas, turns out to be the only tip of the iceberg when it comes to her woes as she becomes entangled in the plights of the two other primary characters in Burning Cane. One of those characters is her son Daniel Wayne (Dominique McClellan), whose struggling with being a father to his son while also dealing with his alcoholism and his newfound unemployment, while finally, we have Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce), another person suffering from alcoholism, though unlike the introverted Daniel, Tillman puts on a public appearance of everything being hunky-dory and fine.
Tillman totally adheres to the philosophy of ideal masculinity being able to stifle their emotions, to appear vulnerable is to fail at being a “true man”. The toxic consequences of refusing to confront your own problems in order to fit this traditional mold of peak manliness runs throughout Burning Cane and we get to see how it impacts not just individual characters like Daniel and Tillman, but also the other people in their lives. No man is an island, no person’s behavior exists in a vacuum and that means some of the most haunting moments of Burning Cane deal with the fact that the significant others of Daniel and Tillman end up suffering as these two characters lash out in violence to fight away their insecurities.
Youmans’ original screenplay is heavily concerned with how toxic masculinity adversely affects individual people and those around them as well as how people like Reverend Tillman can help normalize narrow perceptions of “healthy” manhood through seemingly squeaky-clean sermons. Also figuring prominently into his writing are numerous instances of Audiovisual Dissonance concerning narration or dialogue playing over footage that contrasts in some way with what we’re seeing. The opening scene, for example, has Helen recount a story in a somber fashion as she merely goes about her business trying to find some sort of cure for her dog. The imagery may be intentionally banal, but what’s weighing on Helen’s shoulders and informing her perspective is communicated in voice-over work that has plenty of gravitas.
An even more noteworthy example of this trait is an intense argument between Daniel and his mother transpiring in voice-over against footage of Daniel’s son romping around in a field of peaches. Much of Burning Cane takes place in environments with either washed-out or subdued colors, so the vibrant colors of this field certainly stand out in one’s mind. This distinct and soothing visual trait being juxtaposed against such a harsh confrontation also helps to reinforce the idea that this location is an escape for Daniel. This field is a rare Garden of Eden in a land full of harshness, hypocrisy, and violence and the way Youmans films this location (Youmans also works as Burning Cane’s cinematographer) beautifully captures this.
The idea of Daniel’s son being detached from the events happening around him is also memorably captured in one of the most evocative moments of Burning Cane depicting Daniel getting a phone call from his enraged mother in the background while his son just absentmindedly colors in the foreground. This extended deep focus shot frames a tumultuous home life in such striking terms while a poignant quality is captured in the audience realizing that Daniel’s son has no idea what kind of chaos is going on around him. It’s a thoughtfully-filmed sequence that’s par for the course throughout the extremely well-crafted Burning Cane. If this movie is any indication, writer/director Phillip Youmans is going to very quickly become a filmmaking name to watch out for!