Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bellflower: Mad, Muddled Max

US, 2011
Written and directed by Evan Glodell

Let's play a game:

Imagine, for a moment, that I'm not a fake internet critic, but rather an average indie film fan, one who doesn't much research the movies he sees, but takes recommendations gladly. He's flipping through Netflix's streaming selections, and chances upon Bellflower, the debut feature from Evan Glodell. It sounds intriguing, so he puts it on. Now, this Hypothetical Me isn't going to be aware that Glodell designed a special camera for the film, one that fuses digital tech with old, archaic analog bits. He might appreciate elements of Joel Hodge's cinematography, its unsteady focus and grungy, retro look that feels like an Instagram come to life, but that's it. He might also grasp that the film was likely made on a low budget, but he wouldn't know just how low, nor necessarily concern himself with how much value the film got out of that budget. Hypothetical Me isn't giving any bonus points for ingenuity; he's just going to be thinking about the text of the film itself.

In that context, Bellflower is a difficult film to talk about. It's a strange hybrid, blending lo-fi mumblecore relationship drama with raw expressionism and more than a little emotional and physical violence, all via postmodern stylistic tics. Its main characters are two twenty-something man-children named Woodrow (writer/director Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson), a pair of Wisconsin transplants who spend their time in the film's titular run-down LA suburb tinkering with weapons and cars for use in the Mad Max–inspired apocalypse whose onset they imagine to be imminent. Their only social contact comes at a local bar where, during a cricket-eating contest, they meet femme fatale Milly (Jessie Wiseman) and her crew, BFF Courtney (Rebekah Brandes) and "roommate" Mike (Vincent Grashaw). The group members' subsequent couplings, recouplings, and decouplings carry much of the film's plot as it trundles inevitably toward the dark, bloody moments Glodell shows us in fragmentary snatches during the film's intro.

From the start, there's something slightly off about these characters and this film's world. Perhaps it's a comment on the lack of opportunities today's youth face, with the financial collapse and sluggish recovery standing in for the apocalypse the characters fear, but everybody seems to be coasting, like college students on a permanent summer break. If anyone has a job, it isn't obvious. This had me wondering about Woodrow and Aiden's seeming ability to live without any visible source of income, yet somehow still afford to build weapons and fit classic cars with expensive mods. But this film isn't really after verisimilitude.

The film's stylistic flourishes—a non-linear story, unnecessary-feeling chapter titles, the potential melding of fantasy and reality—serve as distancing tactics. In some films, where character and story are well-handled, a little post-modern distance can be fun. Here, I never warmed up to these characters in the first place, neither to their nihilistic boozing nor their bro-ish mannerisms, so it was awfully hard to care when things finally went dark. I don't have to like characters to care about their story, but Bellflower takes our investment as a given, which strikes me as a miscalculation, considering how little these people care about beyond cars and fire.

If the characters take Mad Max as their inspiration, the filmmakers could stand to do the same. Those films, while grim, have moments of levity and something resembling a plot. Granted, Bellflower is a relationship film, which has different story needs than action/road movies. But it lacks humor (unless you find multiple scenes of Woodrow throwing up funny), and kills our empathy for its protagonists through their occasionally horrific attitude towards women, an attitude the film seems to share, given its female characters. While, to his credit, Glodell does create a sense of menace and dread that is quite affecting when the dam bursts, it's hard not to wonder how much more useful his and Hodge's skills would be in the service of characters and story that merit them.

I know that Real Me, as opposed to Hypothetical Me, has a critical responsibility to know about and consider the filmmakers' technical innovations and what they manage to do on a microbudget. And I respect that, I really do. But the problem, here, is that there's no world in which those innovations make up for this film's lousy characters, inert drama, and bizarre sexual politics. Tone only carries so far, but for that tone to translate to an emotional experience, we need more. Bellflower never offers it.

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