A lot of movies have been made about families, but not many honest ones. Most of the time, even if the film digs into some of the more difficult issues that arise between husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, everything is resolved before the fade out. We may see anger, envy, cruelty, betrayal, but generally speaking it’s all explained away by the end of the story. Everybody has their reasons, everybody has their issues, and everybody ends up burying their problems to join in a big, warm group hug before the final fade-out.
And so a film that really examines the toll that lies, jealousy, desire take on a family is rare. Eve’s Bayou deals with all those things, bringing us into the world of a prosperous Southern family, gradually revealing the dynamics that both keep them together and tear them apart. And in spite of the brutal emotional conflicts, the overwhelming sadness, the film is infused with a radiant beauty. This movie is not about despair. It’s about life.
Like The Magnificent Ambersons, Eve’s Bayou isn’t just about a family, it’s about where they live. Writer/director Kasi Lemmons opens the film by telling us that the bayou was named after a slave who was freed by her master. She then bore him sixteen children. Their descendants, the Batistes, are the focus of the story. Their large, comfortable home is at the center of the film, but Lemmons also takes the time to show us the town, its people, its market, its cemetery. The family is well-respected, and proud of their standing in the community. In fact the father, Louis, is more than proud. He’s arrogant, cocky, and his brash confidence will be his undoing.
Another thing the film has in common with The Magnificent Ambersons is the way the director uses a party to bring us into the world of this family and to lay out the relationships. After a brief prologue, we find ourselves in the bayou at night, drifting across the dark water, floating past the heavy trees until we find ourselves in front of the brightly lit Batiste home. Inside there’s music playing, people are dancing, and everybody seems to be having a great time. But Lemmons gradually takes us deeper, allowing us to catch the careless gestures, the whispered gossip, the hurt glances that nobody notices. And before the end of the party, the main character, a young girl who worships her father, has had her eyes opened to an ugly truth that shakes her to the core.
This is the moment that sets everything else in motion. The realization by Eve that her father is not the hero she thought. She shares the secret with her older sister, Cisely, who is shocked at first, and then insists that nothing happened. Cisely tells Eve she just imagined it. That there’s nothing to worry about. Which is what children often do when confronted with their parents’ sins. You have to bury the knowledge, forget about it, go on as if nothing happened. And then maybe spend years or decades trying to keep the memory from rising back to the surface.
Starting with the opening shots of the bayou, Lemmons gradually draws us into the life of this small Southern town. She seems to favor long takes, slow tracking shots, allowing us to drink in the serenity and stillness of this melancholy world. The sunlight undulates slowly across the dark, smooth water of the bayou. The dense, green foliage seems to embrace life and death at the same time. In the audio commentary we hear Lemmons talk about her close collaboration with cinematographer Amy Vincent and editor Terilyn Shropshire. I was especially interested in what they had to say about finding “organic” solutions, which I took to mean finding simple, direct ways of expressing the story’s themes. Terence Blanchard’s score also plays a crucial role. His subtle orchestral textures, complemented by harmonica and guitar, perfectly match the emotional tone of the film.
As visually rich as the movie is, it wouldn’t mean a thing if the actors didn’t deliver. But not only does Lemmons get great performances out of the individual cast members, they work beautifully as an ensemble, making us believe that they’ve known each other all their lives. Samuel Jackson is smoothly confident as the philandering father who gets offended when anyone questions why he’s never home. Lynn Whitfield plays the beautiful, loving wife, who struggles to raise her children while the knowledge that her husband is cheating eats away at her. Meagan Good has all the poise and authority of a confident, radiant older sister who knows she’s her father’s favorite.
And at the center of the movie is Jurnee Smollett as Eve. It’s one of the most remarkable performances I’ve ever seen a young actor give. She has all the trusting sweetness and all the bitter anger of a girl on the verge of adolescence. Her mood changes in an instant, projecting smug confidence one minute and absolute despair the next. She’s full of love and hate at the same time, torn apart by emotions she doesn’t even understand. Lemmons says she spent a long time looking for a girl to play Eve, but on seeing Smollett immediately knew she was perfect for the role. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.
Eve’s Bayou is one of the few movies that really captures families as they are, diving deep into the currents of love and jealousy, bitterness and loyalty that bear mothers and fathers, sons and daughters relentlessly forward. It doesn’t tell us that everything’s going to be all right. All of this will go on forever, and all of this will fade into the past.