Documentary-fiction hybrids are tough to pull off, and this one stumbles hard over the fiction part. The good news is that Bombay Beach is a gorgeously shot, humane work that takes a narratively oblique approach to the impoverished residents of a community near California's ruinous Salton Sea and sketches their lives with nuance and compassion rather than simply exaggerating their quirks. That's no small achievement, and it makes the bewildering predicament of preteen bipolar-disorder sufferer Benny Parrish unusually palpable. This frankness is matched by the swooning tenderness with which high school football player CeeJay Thompson treats his girlfriend. Even the cowpoke charm of itinerant oldster and casual racist Red, a self-styled “lost, lonely dude in a faraway place,” shines through. It's when writer-director Alma Har'el floats the locale as a grand metaphor for the demise of the American Dream that things get tricky. She obscures the fact that the Salton Sea is as much a magnet for people intent on fleeing said dream as passively washing out of it, then proceeds to incorporate a shifty mix of reality and fabrication. Some of the movie's most pointed and beautiful passages are obviously staged, so a late shot of Benny's older sister mooning over a phases-of-birth poster in a clinic leaves the nagging question of whether she did so without prompting. Whatever else these folks' lives are or aren't, and however they ended up on the edge of this particular abyss, their stories are rich enough without the embellishments.

LA Weekly