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Minor Prophets

Burning Cane is a stunning debut from a teenage filmmaker



Braelyn Kelly in Braelyn Kelly in Burning Cane

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Phillip Youmans directorial debut doesn’t feature any Hollywood A-listers. Nor does it tout the kind of genre gimmicks which typically set the film festival world ablaze. But when Burning Cane premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival—where it won the Founder’s Award for best Narrative Feature—the film’s 19-year-old director, the first black person to win the honor, found himself launched into the stratosphere. The film caught the attention of powerhouse director Ava DuVernay (When They See Us) who hand-picked Burning Cane to be distributed by ARRAY, her film distribution company dedicated to the amplification of independent films by people of color and women filmmakers. 

It is, to be sure, unchartered territory for most artists below the national drinking age. At just 17, while other ambitious teenage filmmakers are busy making YouTube auditions to be the next big Marvel director, Youmans wrote, directed and shot this heartbreaking portrait of life below the poverty belt in rural Louisiana. But what makes Burning Cane one of my most anticipated films of the year is not the age of its creator, but rather its poetic contemplation of corrupted faith and toxic masculinity.

Now streaming on Netflix, Burning Cane is a portrait of a Louisiana family in distress. Helen (Karen Kaia Livers) is torn between her devotion to her Southern Baptist church and its alcoholic leader Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce), and her adult son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) who struggles with his own demons while subjecting his son Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly) to the same generational abuse Daniel endured. Through measured camera work and sparse poetic dialogue, we see how Helen and her son struggle, coming to grips with addiction and intergenerational trauma.

Rather than being hamstrung by the strictures of no-budget filmmaking, Youmans instead leans into his material limitations to paint this ruminative portrait of a family trapped in a cycle of alcoholism and false piety. In Youmans’ Louisiana, the word of God is nothing more than empty platitudes spat out by men like Rev. Tillman to keep an economically depressed community clutching to hope while the wheels of poverty and addiction 
break them. 

Burning Cane may bear a few minor rough edges, but Youmans tackles the cycles of abuse and religious hypocrisy with a lyrically deft hand. At a time when our cinematic forbearers are bemoaning the state of cinema and its power to explore and enlighten the human condition, Youmans exhibits a maturity and empathy seemingly beyond his years—a beautiful new voice in American film, blending the authenticity of Euzhen Palcy and Charles Burnett with the cinematic lyricism of Terrence Malick, delivering an astonishingly assured and focused debut showing nothing but promise. Youmans is truly a filmmaker to watch. 

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