Dir. Daniel Patrick Carbone, USA, 2018, 93 min.

Daniel Patrick Carbone’s dreamlike meditation on growing up interweaves the stories of three young men in disparate corners of rural America. Varied in geography, the locales share a sense that life might be leaving its residents behind. Trona, an industrial town at the edge of Death Valley in interior California, and Pahokee, nestled in the sugarcane fields of south Florida, feel as remote as Parkersburg, W.Va.

“I want to go to the ocean,” the 17-year-old Nick narrates over footage of his 23-year-old self, walking up during the pre-dawn hours to begin a shift at Trona Chemical Plant. “That’s one thing I miss. I’ve only seen the whole ocean one time.”

Trona is 200 miles from Los Angeles. Similarly, Pahokee is less than 50 miles from West Palm Beach, but might as well be in a different country. The footage of Larry and his friends hunting rabbits in the sugarcane fields is some of the most vivid cinematography viewers are likely to see, somehow chaotic, fevered and contemplative all at the same time.

“I want to tell all those animal lovers, we don’t just kill rabbits ’cause we done gone and got drunk, went and got high on drugs,” says Larry’s father. “We don’t kill ’em ’cause we drug addicts. We kill ’em for survival. And something got to eat something; that’s the way of the world right there.”

The film doesn’t yield up tidy conclusions about the similarities among the three young men. In some ways, their fates couldn’t be more different. Larry, for example, finds himself recurrently in prison before his 25th birthday, while Nick appears to be chasing a dream of middle-class homeownership. Tyler, the protagonist of the Parkersburg story, is pursuing an avocation as a dirt-track racer, with a modicum of success while acknowledging that his decision to stay close to his four daughters prevents him from taking advantage of some opportunities. Some go further than others, but the common thread appears to be the long shadow of constraint. Carbone seems to be nudging viewers towards reflection on what binds and separates the three young men through repeated visual themes — fire, smoke, smokestacks, trains — in all three stories. As the stories segue from one to the other, he even continues the narration from one while beginning the visual footage of another, bleeding them together at the edges. With arresting footage and compelling narratives, it doesn’t take much persuasion to buy into Carbone’s vision.

Phantom Cowboys screens at A/perture 1 on April 26 at 4 p.m. and April 28 at 10 a.m., and at UNCSA Gold on April 29 at 11:30 a.m. Director Daniel Patrick Carbone and producer Ryan Scafuro attend the April 28 and April 29 screenings.

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