When it comes to films about family, few are as beautiful, complicated, and deeply beloved as Eve’s Bayou. In this drama centered around the lives of a Creole African-American family, the audience gets a little bit of everything: history, drama, lies, loud silences, broken promises, and the hidden truth lurking somewhere in the middle. The film’s titular character, Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), is a precocious ten-year-old who lives a very sheltered and privileged life in the Louisiana bayou with her mother, a well-connected homemaker, her father, a respected doctor in the community, and her brother and sister. Eve’s coming-of-age, the focus of the film, is jarred into overdrive when she witnesses her father’s infidelity during a party. Her older sister, Cisely (Meagan Good), convinces her that she just misunderstood an innocent situation, and to not speak of it again.
But what is seen can never be unseen, and now that Eve knows to be on the lookout for it, she sees more evidence of her father’s barely-concealed serial philandering. On top of this stress, Cisely, who is entering puberty, wants her distance from Eve and is constantly entering into arguments with their mother, Roz (Lynn Whitfield), who disapproves of the “too grown” fashion in which Cisely wants to present herself as a young woman entering puberty. As a result of all the drama at home, Eve seeks refuge in her aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), a local psychic with tragic, violent luck in love. Mozelle tells Eve that the gift of second sight runs in their family, and shortly after this, Cisely confides in her sister that their father has molested her.
Eve’s Bayou is visually stunning, riveting in plot, and engaging in dialogue. So many things are left in a grey haze of uncertainty, and the film is all the more lush and intoxicating because of that. But one of the things the film gets very wrong is how it left audiences concerning Cisely and her father, Louis (Samuel L. Jackson). Eve instantly believes her sister, as a good sister should, but their mother (who is never told of any of this) thinks that Cisely is being “fast, and clearly (but silently) disapproves of the relationship between her husband and eldest daughter. Louis’ own sister, Mozelle, who (like Eve) also possesses the gift of second sight, accuses him of molesting Cisely, an accusation which he refutes in a letter to her. It’s this letter, eloquently worded and seemingly sincere, which convinces Eve that Cisely had lied to her and that their father had not abused her after all.
But Roz’s behaviour, which is (sadly) incredibly common among mothers who know that their children are begin molested and choose to ignore it, opting instead to see said children as competition and punishing them for their victimization, is the biggest indicator that we ever get (besides Cisely’s own admission) that Cisely is telling the truth. The second is Mozelle’s accusation, which could not have possibly come easily to her, and is unlikely to be wrong, considering Mozelle’s psychic gift. The third (and far more hazy) affirmation that the audience receives of Cisely’s abuse is when the sisters hold hands and cry together, indicating that Eve used her second sight to see Cisely’s memories and discern the truth. But the truth, like so many things in this movie, is never confirmed aloud. And sadly, because we live in a society where predators often have to be caught in the act in order for victims to be believed (sometimes, not even then), many fans of the film are convinced, based on Louis’ letter of defense and absolutely nothing else, that Cisely was in fact a “fast” little girl who tried to seduce her own father and then slandered him when he rejected her.
And this is where Eve’s Bayou fails. In writer/director Kasi Lemmons’ zeal to keep the truth fuzzy and always on the periphery, she robs Cisely and audiences alike of the vindication that she, and so many victims of abuse at the hands of a family member, so desperately needed for healing and closure. First and foremost, Eve’s Bayou is a movie about secrets. It’s a film about about how, for many families, secrets and lies are the foundation on which they are built, and the fuel that keeps the family structure running, lest outsiders see though the cracks and the unit collapses from no longer being able to keep up appearances. But one thing that Eve’s Bayou does right is exposing just how incredibly toxic and tarnishing secrets can be, especially when they’re not yours.
I give this one 4.75 stars.