Memory is a selection of images. Some elusive, others imprinted indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old.
"Eve's Bayou" is the remarkable first effort from writer/director Kasi Lemmons, a coming-of-age drama with a decidedly Tennessee Williams look-and-feel to it, with characters that can be both saints and sinners, depending on your point of view, and an unbroken aura of mysticism that permeates throughout.
EB focuses on the Batiste family, who live in Eve's Bayou, a Creole community founded by a freed slave. It is the summer of 1962, and the narrator, Eve Batiste (newcomer Jurnee Smollett) is ten years old, the middle child between her fourteen year old sister Cisely (Meagan Good) and her younger brother Poe (Jake Smollett). The head of the household is Louis (Samuel Jackson, who also produced), a debonair country doctor who's admired by the residents of Eve's Bayou-- in fact, he is admired by many of the women of Eve's Bayou for more than his bedside manner, which is further exacerbated by his inability to pass up a pretty face. Meanwhile, his wife Roz (Lynn Whitefield), a beautiful and well-disposed woman, is blind to the activities of her philandering husband. One night, during a party at the Batiste household, Eve falls asleep in the barn, only to be awoken by the amorous sounds of Louis and another married woman, Matty Mereaux (Lisa Nicole Carson). Though Louis reassures his daughter that the family is still strong and that he still loves Roz very much, Eve is shaken and forever troubled by the incident.
This is the first step in the emotional maturation of the young Eve, where the false security of childhood naiveté is gradually replaced by sullen disillusionment. By the time the fateful event mentioned in the opening monologue is fully realized, Eve will have learned the truth about the frail and tangled web that unites her family, the manipulation and lies that are told to keep those frail bonds in place, and that not everything is as simple as it seems. This last point is emphasized by Lemmons through a series of narrative sequences, each representing the same event, only seen through a different set of eyes, much like "Rashomon". For example, Eve's eavesdropping on Louis and Matty's adulterous fling in the barn is reframed by Cisely, and the same scene is re-interpreted from Cisely's reassurances. Another sequence, the most outstanding of the entire film, has Louis' sister, Aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), a three-time widower with the uncanny ability to see into the future, telling Eve about the death of one of her late husbands, watching the action from the past unfold in a mirror. Is that the way it really happened, or is it just the way Mozelle likes to remember it? Memories like this must be taken with a grain of salt, as they are subject to subtle degrees of interpretation.
In addition to the stunning cinematography and the excellent writing that perfectly captures the local color of Louisiana life, there are numerous notable performances found in EB. Samuel Jackson, who is usually seen in more flamboyant roles in gritty urban fare (such as "Jackie Brown"), is cast against type as the suave and kind Louis, a side rarely seen. But he is even overshadowed by the powerhouse performance of the young Jurnee Smollett, who convincingly plays the precocious youngster that seeks to keep her family together, at whatever cost. Lynn Whitfield and Debbi Morgan are also both superb in their contrasting roles, the first exuding both pride and vulnerability, and the latter exuding unrestrained sexuality. Finally, celebrated actress Diahann Carroll (last seen in the Toronto production of "Sunset Boulevard"), manages to captivate with her short but significant role as a voodoo practitioner that foretells the impending tragedy of the Batiste family.
Though the pacing was a little bit on the slow side, it no way detracts from this seemingly unassuming film which has a very emotional and complex narrative at its core. "Eve's Bayou" is a captivating breath of fresh air, unique in its vision, and memorable in its presentation. Highly recommended.