Burma is my favorite kind of movie. It’s one of those movies that offer a glimpse into the lives of other people. A brief look into the trials and tribulations of ordinary people with ordinary problems. The camera follows around their subject(s) in an honest and vulnerable way. It’s a film that relies on an emotional yet comedic script. It’s a film that needs actors that can carry both the light and heavy weights. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t offer too much or too little. It’s not pedantic or full of ridiculous plot twists to create unnecessary drama. It’s a film that knows when drama turns to melodrama.
Carlos Puga‘s Burma is a realistic portrait of a family getting together for their annual reunion to celebrate their deceased mother’s birthday. Puga comes from a documentary background, having directed more than a few episodes of MTV’s True Life series. It seems appropriate that his film would have a realistic tone. A naturalistic tone that emerges through sincere camerawork, beautiful cinematography and outstanding performances from all its actors.
Dr. Lynn (Christopher McCann), the estranged father of three, shows up unannounced at Christian’s apartment. Christian (cutie Christopher Abbott of Girls fame) a twenty-something, who happens to be the middle child is caught off guard. He’s impatiently waiting for his dealer to show up with cocaine, so he can continue the novel he’s supposedly writing. Dr. Lynn puts Christian in a difficult place by asking him if he can spend the night and escort him to the family reunion which is taking place at his older sister Susan’s house a few hours away.
Susan (Gaby Hoffmann) is the one most affected by their father’s abandonment. Dr. Lynn left his family just as their mother was diagnosed with cancer, which probably means Susan had to take full responsibility of their mother’s care since she was the oldest. We might have spent most of our time with Christian, but it was Hoffmann’s Susan that really ripped this portrait of a family apart.
Win (Dan Bittner), the youngest of the three siblings seems unaffected by their father’s estrangement. He runs into his father’s arms, literally, when he sees him. He must have been too young to fully understand the reality of what predicament their father put them in. Bittner’s performance was the weakest of all the siblings and I’m not sure if it was his acting or the lack of emotional turmoil his character had to deal with.
To round out the cast, Christian’s ex-girlfriend Kate (Emily Fleischer) is somehow invited to the shindig by the overprotective mother-figure Susan. At first, it seems her presence is a contrived effort to have Christian more relatable. But Kate is there to ask the questions the audience wants to ask while we embark on this road trip upstate. Then there is Susan’s daughter, Charlie (Jacinta Puga) who is vital to Christian’s trajectory.
Burma which won the Grand Jury Award for Ensemble Cast at SXSW is a portrait of an American family. Like every old painting, the paint is peeling. The frame is even cracked. We are offered four different perspectives on the death of a loved one. Incorporate their father’s abandonment into this depressing equation and the blue sky in the portrait turns gray. These relationships are complex and complicated. How does a family deal with this kind of tragedy? But don’t worry, Dr. Lynn has reasons for abandoning them at their worst; we spend the entirety of the film wondering what these reason could possibly be.
Burma deconstructs the portrait of an (ideal) family. Puga is interested in the cracks in the paint and tears in the canvas. These three siblings are opening old wounds while creating new ones. We watch them as they rip their stitches out and reveal devastating truths. Sometimes it’s hard to see our fathers, sisters and brothers as people. We forget they are human. We forget they are a person before they are our father, sister, or brother. During the course of a weekend, we watch each of them pick up a brush and paint their own version of events. Fortunately, we have the privilege of viewing these portraits as if they were a collection in an art gallery, framed by film in a theater.