Dave's Rating:

4.5

… weirdly upbeat …

Who's In It: John Waters (narrator), Sonny Bono (archive footage), various Salton Sea residents

The Basics: Fifty miles south of Palm Springs is an artificial salt lake called the Salton Sea that was once a booming resort town. Then, in the '60s and '70s, tropical-storm flooding devastated the area, and people just up and left. For the next three decades, a combination of environmental problems — millions of fish dying at once, mass bird deaths, agricultural runoff causing the water to become saltier than the ocean and rumored industrial waste pollution — turned the area into a near ghost town.

What's the Deal? Think the description of the area's hard times sounds off-putting? Wait till you see the place. Dead animals, rusted boats, abandoned and broken-down buildings, standing sewage and trash are the landscape of a place where this documentary's residents live their lives. They're mostly poor and mostly elderly, and even though it all sounds horrible, this has a weirdly upbeat feeling. For that, thank the tragedy-reveling narration from Waters and the goofy interviews with the townspeople, most of whom give their testimonials with a cigarette in one hand and booze in the other. In fact, more than a few of them are visibly drunk.

What to Expect If You Stop by Salton City: Stores that close at 6 p.m., a boarded-up town café, permanently hopeful and seemingly delusional real-estate agents, an amazing, handmade (from dried mud) art installation by a Christian folk artist called Salvation Mountain, the leather-skinned town nudist who stands by the side of the road and waves at cars, beleaguered wildlife workers trying to save dying pelicans, a Hungarian revolution vet who drops his pants for all the ladies and unleashes, according to Waters, "a curious odor."

The Serious Side, Provided by the Late Bono: He fought to rehab the environmental problems and the town's post-Katrina atmosphere, hoping to bring back the tourist traffic. But according to one smirking old woman, "Unfortunately, he went skiing."

My Favorite Scene: Adults talk about how it's a better place to raise kids than in the big, bad city. No crime or drugs, they're proud to say. Cut to a 10-year-old girl saying, "You can get weed anywhere here. People try to give it to me all the time. But I like soccer."

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