Any time I see the “Based on true events” heading in front of a film, I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and pray for the best, knowing that there is a strong likelihood that what I am about to see will be less than satisfying. So, when that title emerged at the beginning of Bomb City, I was consistent. But I was also optimistic – the poster alone had my attention. Then again, you can’t judge a book by its cover. So maybe I was moments away from a major disappointment? Maybe I was moments away from being able to point out that a film has to have a great deal of confidence to use the word ‘bomb’ in its title? Bomb City is most certainly not a bomb, but it was somewhat of an emotional explosion. A couple weeks later and I’m still finding debris.
I knew nothing about this real life case. Bomb City tells the story of Brian Deneke (played with dynamic punk rock empathy by Dave Davis), 19-year-old punk rocker in Amarillo, Texas, who was horrifically killed by a 17-year-old high school student, Dustin Camp (a chillingly normal Luke Shelton) in 1997. Bomb City traces the roots of the conflict between the local punk rockers and the local jocks that led to the tragedy, beginning with innocent blustering at a local eatery, and culminating with a full on rumble that gets way out of control in an instant. The wrap around to the story is the court case of Dustin Camp, with friends and witnesses testifying to what happened, as we get flashbacks that illuminate everything for us.
Let’s start with the technical craft at play here, because it’s impressive in a way few independent films are these day. Co-Writer/Director Jameson Brooks understands what makes this story so powerful and he does a pitch-perfect job of creating characters that we can’t help but root for, even if they’re not living their lives in the best way possible. The sense of dread he builds throughout the film is palpable, as if we’re all waiting for an F5 tornado to sweep through and destroy everything in its path. The build-up to the final sequence is skillful on a level that I haven’t quite wrapped my head around yet – the audience I was in was vocally distraught for the final fifteen minutes of the film. You relish audience experiences like that.
Thinking of a better ensemble of actors in an indie film this year is damned near impossible. Though the film really belongs to Davis (as Brian), and the kinetic Henry Knotts as King, it’s hard to ignore just how powerful Shelton’s performance is as the ‘antagonist’ of the picture. It might seem simple, but there’s a lot going on in that performance, which is evident in everything he does during the final third of the picture. While watching the film, all I could think about was how brilliant Davis was. Since seeing the film, Shelton’s is the performance that keeps popping in my head. The entire ensemble is superb, breathing life and a sense of a desperate need to belong in a community that doesn’t understand them. The film reminded me a lot of “Billy Elliot” of all things – a community so stuck in itself that it can’t appreciate or even attempt to understand the art going on all around it.
The D.P. here is Jake Wilganowski. He shot a beautiful looking picture called Sunny in the Dark, and he outdid himself even further with Bomb City. This is a guy who just innately understands how to tell a story with his camera. Every shot has a direct purpose, and the way he films the action is impressive, especially for a cinematographer with such a limited resume of feature length productions. It’s very rare that I make a point of keeping an eye out for what cinematographer’s are up to, but his is a name I plan on monitoring.
If the film fell short at all it was the sense that I never really felt like I understood any of the jocks enough to really engage with them, as characters. Shelton, as great as he is, is doing a lot of heavy lifting with very little support from the script. And I fully understand that that may have been the intent of the filmmaker. I just feel as if I would have felt the tragedy of the situation even harder if I had been able to absorb just how it was affecting both lives lost here, Brian and Dustin. Dustin is painted as such a villain by the end of the film, it was difficult for me to feel anything other than contempt when I know I should have been slightly more conflicted. It wouldn’t have made the tragedy any weaker, but would have made it greater, for me.
But let’s be serious – this was a minor issue with a pretty deliriously engaging flick. I loved Bomb City. I loved Bomb City in a way I haven’t loved an indie flick in quite some time. I cannot think of another cinematic experience I’ve had where I could feel the pulse of the audience all around me. Maybe The Blair Witch Project back in 1999, two year after the events that transpired in this film. You could hear a pin drop in the Huntsville, Alabama Regal Cinemas back in ’99, and you could hear the teardrops fall – each and every one – during Bomb City in 2017. I can’t encourage you enough to check this film out and – if you’re like me and knew nothing about the events on which it was based – go in as blind as possible. I promise you – you’re going to get slammed by a ton of bricks and thank the filmmakers for slamming you. It both made me want to visit Amarillo and never step foot in that town again. What an accomplishment.
For more info, including upcoming screenings, visit: http://www.bombcityfilm.com/.
Billy Ray Brewton
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