Evan Glodell, Tyler Dawson, Jessie Wiseman, Rebekah Brandes
(Oscilloscope; US theatrical: 5 Aug 2011 (Limited release); 2011)
A story should never end on a note of confusion. Even if you are using the most obtuse device or approach possible to get your point across, the end result should be a nod of the, not a scratch to the, head. With Evan Glodell’s feature film debut Bellflower, we have a pair of recognizable slackers, both obsessed with the movie The Road Warrior and, specifically, the muscled monster known as the Lord Humungous. The childhood friends have moved from cold Wisconsin to sunny California because “it would be cool” and spend their days designing and building a flamethrower. Their plan is quite elaborate - arm themselves with portable fire, trick out a car ala Mad Max, and prepare for the upcoming Armageddon…whenever that is.
For Woodrow (Glodell) and his pal Aiden (Tyler Dawson), life is indeed just a series of cinematic fetishes. Within their imaginary gang - Mother Medusa - there’s a desire to explore ever darker, more dangerous territories. Into this false, fictional existence walks a woman - Milly (Jessie Wiseman). Aiden finds her annoying. Woodrow is so smitten that, as a first date, he drives all the way to Texas just to impress the gal. They spend several days together, learning more about each other than in previous relationships. When it looks like all parts of Woodrow and Aiden’s post-apocalyptic fantasy will finally be fulfilled, romance turns into rejection. This leaves the former completely devastated, leading to a series of decisions which may or may not indicate the end of the world - or at the very least, the end of Woodrow’s insular existence.
Bellflower belies many of its intensions through its approach. There is no desire to explain Woodrow or Aiden, no excusing their obsessive love of fire and alcohol, no rationalization for how they live financially or outside their small social sect. Thanks to an unusual cinematographic style which resembles a pinhole camera given a slick technological update, everything is viewed through a prism flawed fairy tale nostalgia. The indie slacker angle helps a bit, since we’ve seen characters like this many times before. We recognize their desire to stay outside the Established mandates of the real world. But Bellflower pushes the limits of our attention. So many scenes revolve around wordless conversations that carry little or no weight that we wonder if we too are getting lost in this alternate existence.
Much of the confusion comes from the script. Glodell doesn’t want to define heroes and villains. He’s not interested in setting up your standard arc. Instead, there’s a weird organic flow to what happens, occasionally challenged by flashbacks that confuse our perspective. When it’s working, Bellflower is mesmerizing. It’s akin to visiting someone’s secret wishes and sharing some of them. But when it doesn’t work, which is often, the movie makes you mad. It angers your desire to identify with and root for these guys. We’d love to see what happens should the planet suddenly devolve into chaos and Woodrow and Aiden are left to their own formerly imaginary devices. We’d also like a legitimate portrait of young love as Milly becomes an integral part of the Medusa view.
But Bellflower isn’t going down that road. In fact, there are instances when we honestly aren’t sure why George Miller’s action epics are part of the conceit. Granted, we get a great scene where the entire Lord Humungous message is measured out over scenes of potential destruction and there are glimpses of the film itself in TV sets along the way, but for the most part, this crazy concept comes directly from the guys’ fervent imagination. They taken a beloved idea and warped it to fit their fragile grasp on things. This makes for an intriguing backdrop. It doesn’t make for a satisfying entertainment. Indeed, the biggest problem facing Bellflower, among a chosen few, is the lack of any real desire to connect. Reasons to support these guys are always sideswiped by obvious grounds to reject them. Woodrow and Aiden aren’t champions - they’re chumps. Drunken, aimless chumps.
And the girls aren’t much better. For most of the movie, Wiseman’s Milly is viewed as the ultimate pretty punk queen, a gal grooving on her own sense of style and maturity with men. When she hooks up with Woodrow, she defies convention and feeds his outsider Id. But when she finally relents and turns into the standard issue fickle female, we are stunned. We thought Milly was better than this. Clearly, we were wrong. Then there is best friend Courtney, who comes across as a wannabe shadow of her sunnier best buddy. She loves Milly, but can’t wait to take her place when things fall apart. The resulting dynamic doesn’t deepen our understanding of who these people are. Instead, it makes us hate them even more.
In fact, a chief flaw in Glodell’s vision is his aim. This is a movie made for fellow filmmakers, not audiences eager to be engaged or challenged. It’s a love letter to itself, a statement of purpose preaching to the already converted. One can easily see legions of college age viewers vamping on the story’s many themes and writing sonnets to Milly’s pert bar babe sexuality. In fact, it’s safe to say that Bellflower is an experience for anyone who still things binge drinking is a viable part of any post-college career. Art is one thing - and there is a lot of skill and craft here - but viewers still want the standard things from their medium of choice. Playing to one specific demo may work for Smurfs and CG parrots, but usually it dies outside such childishness.
With an ending that will leave you with more questions than answers and an overall aesthetic which assumes you’re either cool or a boring old fart, Bellflower breaks conventions as it embraces its own obtuse desires. There is a lot to appreciate here. There’s also plenty to get mad about. In the end, a reaction will be tied to something other than the story and how it is told - and that’s never the way a narrative should be judged. Confusion can have its place within the cinematic ideal. For Bellflower, it seems to be the sole raison d’être.