Eve’s Bayou (1997, Kasi Lemmons)

Eve’s Bayou is Southern Gothic, but it’s got a kids’ summer story grafted onto it; by the end, the two genres are working together to great effect. I mean, the end’s got problems, but the way the film gets to it is captivating.

The film opens with Tamara Tunie narrating from the future—when she was a kid in early sixties Louisiana and played by Jurnee Smollett, she killed her dad one summer. Right away, we get the hook, for better or worse, and it makes the father—played by Samuel L. Jackson—entirely suspicious when he otherwise might not have been.

Okay, he spends all his time at a party with Lisa Nicole Carson instead of his wife Lynn Whitfield, but he’s just a good host, right?

Obviously not. Obviously. Multiple times throughout the film, when one of the adults finds out Jackson is a cheating man slut, they react with exaggerated surprise, even though we meet Jackson grinding on Carson. He just happens to be a good dad to kids Smollett, Meagan Good, and Jake Smollett. Good’s about to be a teenager, Jurnee Smollett’s ten, and Jake Smollett’s the youngest. Jack Smollett will be an occasional comedic relief valve and often adorable, but he’s otherwise irrelevant to the narrative. He gives cast members something to do in the background, though he’s absent from the crucial third-act moments.

It’s not his story.

Despite opening with the narration and finding Jurnee Smollett in the past, Bayou widens for the first act, spending lots of time with Whitfield, her sister-in-law Debbi Morgan, and Morgan’s husband, Branford Marsalis. Marsalis is grandstanding delight in the first act; it’s a showcase, letting him be charming to Morgan, a good uncle to Smollett, and even get in drunken fisticuffs with Jackson. Morgan becomes the film’s principal female adult in the second act, whereas in the first act, she’s supporting Whitfield (at least during the party).

Just as the film seems like it’ll stay wide, it focuses in on Smollett and her reactions to the various events going on with the adults. She also sees something she shouldn’t; when she shares that secret with Good, it works to drive the sisters apart a little. Once aunt Morgan has a vision about a kid being hit by a bus, Whitfield orders the kids under house arrest.

Simultaneous to this house arrest is Whitfield’s suspicions about Jackson’s catting around now noticeably affecting home life. So the kids are cooped up in a layer cake of agitation. It’s just a matter of who breaks bad first.

Smollett’s the protagonist in front of those events. Her actions, reactions, and observations drive Bayou. Luckily, she’s excellent. The film doesn’t have any shabby performances, just ones needing either more time or… well, the finale reveal calls a couple of the characters into question, even more, changing the tone before the closing narration comes in to change the tone again.

So a couple of the performances have asterisks by them.

But Smollett’s fantastic, ditto Good, Morgan, and Diahann Carroll (as a rival psychic to Morgan). Whitfield and Jackson have asterisks unrelated to the conclusion, just because they’re the parents in a troubled marriage from the kid’s perspective. Outstanding performances, lots of complexities, certain constraints. In addition to the aforementioned Marsalis, Roger Guenveur Smith (as Carson’s husband) and Ethel Ayler (as Grandma) are also delightful.

Then there’s Vondie Curtis-Hall, who shows up for an unexpected romance arc for one of the adults, and he looks like a romance novel cover. He serves almost no purpose in the movie—there’s not even real character development for his love interest—but he’s terrific. The wig’s magnificent, the performance is wonderful.

Speaking of character arcs to nowhere… despite featuring three psychic characters, the supernatural aspect’s entirely window dressing. It doesn’t actually affect the narrative, not even really in how the psychic characters experience anything. Like, they’re aware of their visions and premonitions, but Bayou avoids ever affirming their accuracy.

Then the epilogue narration skips over all the interesting elements. So a muddy finish, but an otherwise excellent picture. Lemmons’s direction is good, her writing strong. Other than the very nineties “psychic” montages, the technicals are all good. Even the montages aren’t bad; they just terribly date the film and muss with Amy Vincent’s photography.

Bayou’s a complicated, conflicting, haunting experience.

Leave a Reply