What you’re struck by as 19-year-old New Orleans filmmaker Phillip Youmans’ arresting first feature “Burning Cane” unfolds is how much he believes in film as a sensory dialogue between real and psychological spaces — the weaving car of a drunk preacher in mourning (Wendell Pierce), the lonely kitchen of a deeply religious woman (Karen Kaia Livers) estranged from her violent alcoholic son (Dominique McClellan), and that same out-of-work son’s disturbing approach to looking after his own young boy (Braelyn Kelly) when they’re home alone.
In the closely observed yet loosely stitched together fragments, there’s a wisdom about cinema’s soul-searching capabilities one usually expects from a hard-bitten old-timer, not someone shooting their debut while still in high school. (Not all is lost, Martin Scorsese!)
Youmans’ poetic wade into rural black Louisiana, and the private realms of the faithful and faltering across three generations, is the kind of boldly off-road and unapologetically arty family drama that makes one sit up and take notice. Even when the images edge toward the self-consciously authorial — Youmans is also the cinematographer — there’s always something to latch onto: an authenticity of theme (sickness and treatment), a point of view (especially the boy’s), a curious sound cue or a visual touch (his sense of silhouetting and shadow is exquisite) that speaks to somebody wanting us alert to everything a medium has to offer. “Burning Cane” also gets us excited about what else Youmans can do.
Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 8, Array Amanda Theater, Los Angeles; launches Nov. 6 on Netflix