(A quick aside before I write this review. I watched this film Saturday. I apologize if this review is deficient in any way)
The difference between reality and what we perceive has proven fruitful ground for many storytellers over the years. The film was excellent for a variety of reasons, but 2007’s Atonement struck a tragic and powerful course by following the misunderstood visions of a little girl to their heart-wrenching conclusion. When someone gives a false account of something they witnessed firsthand, malicious falsehoods aren’t necessarily their intention. It’s just how we see things, and, occasionally, we create lies as a coping mechanism. In the Southern Gothic coming of age story, Eve’s Bayou, director Kasi Lemmons fashions another tragic vision of what happens when the filters of childhood warps the real world. And had the film not been peppered with supernatural elements that seemed terribly out of place, it could have been an even more powerful tale.
In the swamps of 1960s Louisiana, Eve Baptiste (Jurnee Smollett) is a ten year old African American girl that believes she is the direct descendant of French general Jean-Paul Baptiste and a Haitian slave. Along with her 14 year old sister Cicely (Meagan Good) and their 9 year old brother, Eve lives with her mother Roz (Lynn Whitfield) and her father, Louis (Django Unchained‘s Samuel L. Jackson). Louis is the most successful and prominent black doctor in the South, and the Baptiste’s live a life of relative luxury compared to most of their peers, though Louis’s psychic sister Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), does alright for herself as well as a counselor. But, Louis is a pathological womanizer, and when Eve catches her father about to make love with a married woman at a family party, the Baptiste family is set on a crash course with heart break.
The film’s greatest asset is its surplus of wonderful performances. Child acting is generally a mixed bag at best, but Meagan Good and Jurnee Smollett hit all of the right notes as Cicely and Eve Baptiste. Meagan Good is particularly effective as the know-it-all older sister who is consistently proven to not know nearly as much as she thinks she does, and without wanting to spoil the plot of the film, she handles particularly adult subject matter very well. And Jurnee Smollett captures the growing disillusionment with adults that any sensible child eventually faces in their life. But, the two best performances of the film were Sam Jackson as the rakish but oh-so charming Louis and Debbi Morgan as the psychic aunt whose male lovers always seem to die violent deaths. She should hang out with Maggie from Northern Exposure.
However, I could never get behind the pervasive supernatural elements that were omnipresent in Eve’s Bayou. At it’s core, it’s a tale of the end of childhood innocence due to exposure to the sexual realities of growing up and how our parents aren’t the perfect protectors we want them to be. That’s great. That’s a great movie right there. But, Eve’s Bayou layers on pervasive element after pervasive element of Cajun voodoo and Southern Gothic supernatural nonsense that seem like superficial window dressing to the story at hand. Unlike, say, the magical realism in Like Water for Chocolate, the psychic stuff (which the film firmly establishes as being real within the movie’s universe) never drew me deeper into this movie’s world. It mostly drew me out of the experience as I scoffed at the ridiculousness of it all.
I want to watch one of the movies that I have home from Netflix right now so I’ll draw this review to a close. Ignoring the supernatural elements of this film, Eve’s Bayou is a tightly wound coming-of-age story that shatters the illusions and misconceptions of childhood in the way that only the best coming of age stories can. It suffers from some pacing problems, and the movie can be distractingly unfocused, but it finds the moments where its visions of the pains and trauma of childhood are so powerful that it hurts to watch. The sympathy it generates for Eve and her sister (and then steals away in the most tragic of ways) is a marvel. I only wish that the entire film had entrenched itself in the realism of its depiction of childhood. Had it left the Louisiana ghost stories at the door, it could have been a truly great film.
Final Score: B+