D: Matthew McDuffie / 95m
Cast: Cody Horn, Landon Liboiron, Kaley Cuoco, Meghann Fahy, Eli Vargas, Sasha Pieterse, Andy Buckley, Virginia Madsen, Wyatt Denny
One of the most popular stories both in literature and cinema – and the wider arts in general – is the one about the prodigal son (or daughter) returning home after a long time away. There will be family issues to face, people to tiptoe gingerly around, and reconciliations to be made, maybe even a few apologies. And it will be an emotional return for all concerned. For all the myriad reasons why someone should return home to face that kind of situation, the most overly used reason is because someone has died. In that circumstance, the pull is undeniable, and the lead character finds themselves drawn back to a place that they’ve done their best to escape from (and plan never to go back to). In its own way, this return is another rite of passage, even if the character is, say, forty or over, because it’s about acknowledging the past and coming to terms with it.
The main character in writer/director Matthew McDuffie’s bittersweet indie drama is Dylan (Liboiron). Dylan is in a relationship with Lauren (Fahy) but it’s not going so well. They’ve had a huge argument right around the time that Dylan learns of the death of his best friend in high school, Bodhi. He’s contacted by a mutual friend, Ember (Horn), who tells him she’s organising Bodhi’s fun-eral (not funeral). Feeling the need to get away for a while, Dylan travels from Chicago to New Mexico, and back to the town he grew up in. He reconnects with his dad, Buck (Buckley), but remains at a distance from his mother, Naomi (Madsen), who left them for another man. Also invited to the fun-eral is Katy (Cuoco), Dylan’s old girlfriend. Their relationship ended badly, but as the fun-eral approaches, he finds old ties hard to resist, and Dylan begins to experience some of the feelings he had for Katy before he left.
While Dylan, Ember and Katy spend time together arranging Bodhi’s send-off, Lauren follows Dylan down to New Mexico, while another friend of Bodhi’s, Miguel (Vargas) travels down by mini-van. On the way he picks up a stranded young woman called Aria (Pieterse); Aria is six months pregnant and heading to California to start a new life, but she agrees to accompany Miguel to the fun-eral. In the days leading up to the ceremony, secrets are revealed, and old relationships are thrown into sharp relief as Dylan faces up to his fears around commitment, Katy battles the drug addiction that is in constant danger of leading to her child being taken away from her, and Ember tries her best to keep her own hidden feelings from being revealed, and making things even more contentious.
There’s more than a whiff of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) about Burning Bodhi, but what’s interesting about this particular movie is the way that it makes communication between the characters both easier and more difficult because of their reliance on modern technology. When Dylan discovers that Bodhi has died, he does so via Facebook, and when he mentions Bodhi’s death to the people around him, it turns out they already know. If death is the great leveller then social media is death’s public relations officer, ready to disseminate news of its activities at the merest push of a button. It’s fast, it’s efficient, and it saves on all the phone calls.
As a step down from one-to-one conversations, the characters rarely use their phones to talk to each other either. Instead they send each other texts, and while this may seem like mass avoidance on everyone’s part, McDuffie is clever enough to make these exchanges the heart and soul of his movie. He shows how much more easy it is for Dylan and his peers to communicate with each other this way, and how easy it is for them to express their feelings, and more clearly. In one scene, Dylan and Katy exchange texts that explore the idea of their getting back together. Dylan is all for it, believing they can make things work, but Katy is unconvinced. As Dylan tries to persuade her to try again, and Katy resists the temptation, their feelings for each other, dormant but still there, are stated with such deep-rooted poignancy that the viewer can’t help but hope they get back together, even though Katy is right.
McDuffie doesn’t make his movie a talk-free zone however, and there’s plenty of verbal interaction to keep more traditional communicators happy, but he achieves more with his characters in terms of a look or a physical stance than he does with the somewhat over-written dialogue of the last fifteen minutes. Here the likes of Katy and Ember offer semi-profound insights into the nature of life and relationships, and with a side order of mortality thrown in for good measure. It makes them all seem wiser than their years, or that they all studied philosophy in high school (which doesn’t seem likely).
The cast embrace the various storylines with gusto, giving considered yet effective performances. Even Liboiron, called upon to be antagonistic and self-absorbed (aka a dick) for most of the movie, acquits himself well, and he manages to imbue Dylan with a lost puppy aura that offsets some of the more hurtful (and harmful) things he does. Horn is the type of upbeat, freewheeling young woman who should be really annoying, but the actress makes her the most sympathetic character in the whole movie, and she does so effortlessly (even when she’s trying to hook up a mutually unimpressed Dylan and Katy while Katy is doing community service). As the drug-damaged Katy, it’s Cuoco who nearly steals the movie, giving the kind of performance that reinforces the idea that there’s more to her than playing Penny on The Big Bang Theory. With her pasty face made pantomimic by the application of too much make-up, Cuoco allows the audience to view her with pity but not with any feelings of condemnation.
On the whole, McDuffie and the cast make good work of a narrative that, for all its careful construction, still appears lightweight in places, and this upholds the idea that the script is unlikely to provide anything to shock or cause concern in its audience. Viewers will be able to predict the movie’s outcome well in advance, not because McDuffie is a terrible screenwriter, but because, good as it all is, he doesn’t really take any chances with the material. This leads to a few scenes lacking in dramatic focus, and when a revelation is made about someone’s feelings or emotions, those feelings and emotions are usually left without being explored any further. This does mean a lack of emotional histrionics (which is a good thing), but it also means that a character’s reactions/demeanour aren’t as fully realised as they could be (which isn’t a good thing).
Ultimately, some lessons are learned while others are left by the wayside, and the fates of all the characters are left for the viewer to decide on, even if the script appears to be shepherding them in certain directions. The New Mexico locations are often beautifully lensed by DoP David J. Myrick, and there’s an unintrusive yet inquisitive score by Ian Hultquist that embeds itself in certain scenes and elevates the emotional content of those scenes with an ease that shouldn’t be ignored.
Rating: 7/10 – with its themes of forgiveness, regret and abandonment, Burning Bodhi may seem like it’s a movie with a message (though if it was, that message would arrive in a text), but instead it does its best to concentrate on the characters and how they can keep hurting each other while still loving each other; a few narrative stumbles here and there stop the movie from being awards-worthy impressive, but as a feature debut for Matthew McDuffie, it’s a good indicator that his next movie should be one to watch out for.