Desert Bloom (1986): Coming of Age Tale from Eugene Corr, Starring Jo Beth Williams and Annabeth Gish

Most coming-of-age movies tend to be comedies and revolve around boys. However, a number of poignant coming-of-age dramas concern female adolescents.

A memoir of growing up in Las Vegas in the early 1950s, Desert Bloom is an earnest film developed at the Sundance Institute, the kind of virtuous fare in which Public Television has specialized.

Though made by a man, Eugene Corr, a Bay Area documentarian, the movie feels an authentic chronicle of one girl’s coming-of-age. The 13-year-old Rose (Annabeth Gish) lives with her kid sisters, her affectionate mom, Lily (Jo Beth Williams), and her troubled stepfather, Jack (Jon Voight). Her Aunt Starr (Ellen Barkin), a good-time girl, moves in to establish residence for divorce and becomes Rose’s mentor.

The movie is set in the Nevada desert, circa 1950, the year the government began testing the A-Bomb. Corr shows a satirical eye for the innocence of the “American bomb culture,” the excitement generated by the tests. At a promotional event, girls vie for the title of Miss A-bomb, and a radio announcer, hyping a casino, says, “You don’t have to wait for the A-bomb to catch the show!” At the climax, mothers wake up their children to watch the blast, as a mushroom cloud, basked in purple light, rises over the desert.

The adult world is represented by Jack, a war hero who suffers from grueling flashbacks of battle. An alcoholic, as well as a rabid anti-Communist and anti-Semite, Jack is portrayed as a limited man, a paranoid whose experience has left him mean and violent. Early on, Jack prevents Rose from going for a party, accusing her of breaking his radio. When Rose tells him it’s unfair, he slaps her, which forces her to wear sunglasses to cover her bruises. As the New York critic David Denby pointed out, Jack’s rejection force Rose to come to terms with adult anger at its most cruel and unreasonable. The filmmakers don’t try to understand Jack: A borderline clinical case, he’s a mystery even when he finally shows some sensitivity to Rose.

Most of the female characters are weak and submissive. ¬†For example, Aunt Starr sits around painting her toenails–a sexy good witch who’s as desperate as she is kind. Winsome mom is patient until she, too, loses her temper.

Strong and adaptable, Rose passes her youth in the shadow of the bomb, but Corr intimates that she will emerge stronger from her childhood’s uncertainties and cruelties. The opening scene, in which Rose has her eyes examined, introduces vision as a recurrent motif. The reviewer David Edelstein pointed out that the glasses are at first a badge of pride, then a means of taking in too much and cover for bruises, and in the climax, they become a way for the stepfather to prove that he cares.

Framed by the narration of its grown up protagonist, the film has an ironic title, alluding to the bomb as well as the young heroine–both are a desert bloom. Rose says in her narration that she loves the wild flowers that grow in the hardest places.

In this picture, the bomb is used as a symbol of hope: When it goes off, it rises in the sky like a rose amidst cactuses. With its depiction of shattered dreams and self-delusions, it’s a family drama in the vein of Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams. But despite symbolic richness, Desert Bloom is not cinematic enough; most of the film is set within the house, which makes it constricted.