I know what boys like
The word of the day, boys and girls, is "ambivalent". As in, "I feel extremely ambivalent towards Bellflower, because Bellfower is extremely ambivalent about its two main characters." Not in the good way.* One gets the feeling - anyway, I got the feeling, and it does seem that Bellflower is something of a Rosarch test - one gets the feeling that first-time writer-director Evan Glodell was all set to slam his protagonists for being shallow, violence-obsessed misogynists, except somewhere along the line he started feeling too sorry for them to carry through on it; that is, anyway, my best reading of the paradox in which the story apparently pays lip serve to the idea that they're basically sociopaths with basically no grasp of reality, while everything else - the acting, the directing, and the music especially - makes them out as some variety of tragic, Romantic heroes. This is not the single problem with Bellflower, which would in any case be a "promising" debut rather than an "exciting" debut; it is, though, an overriding problem.
Bellflower is about two twentysomething men, transplanted from Wisconsin to California, Woodrow (played by Glodell himself, who rounds out the hyphenates by co-editing and producing) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson), united by a childhood love of Mad Max, which they have carried all the way to pseudo-adulthood by means of a shared plan to create a post-apocalyptic crazy psycho gang of their very own: they shall be named "Mother Medusa", and will drive around in a muscle car fitted out with the homemade weaponry that Aiden puts together in his spare time, up to and including a fully-functioning flamethrower. Obviously, there's the pesky matter of waiting around for the right post-apocalypse, but Woodrow and Aiden are optimistic sorts, and this does not much put them out.
In the meanwhile, there is life to be lived, which includes going out and partying every night, and in Woodrow's case, meeting cute with a girl, Milly (Jessie Wiseman), when she bests him during a cricket-eating contest. A cricket-eating contest, I say. Animals were harmed in the making of Bellflower. Anyway, since Milly is such a free spirit and Woodrow is such an affable schlub that they take a spur-of the-moment trip to Texas, and become something akin to boyfriend and girlfriend. This is nice for a while, then it is not as nice, then Milly breaks Woodrow's heart, and he tries to find a way to get on with his life and feel better with the help of his good friend. Also epic amounts of violence and destruction.
Bellflower is inscrutable as all hell, partially because it's not an entirely straightforward task just to pin it all down: a large portion of it takes place inside Woodrow's mind, possibly the whole damn thing. Which is enough to give every single flaw with the film an out: it's all from the perspective of a broken, angry person! And that is why the cinematography is so aggressively unpleasant, and the characterisations so uneven, and the depiction of women so uncompromisingly filthy and dark! Except that I truly don't think that Glodell means for it to play that way. At the very least, if he does, then the movie is a failure of execution, for it does not at all. If there is any intention whatsoever that we're meant to view Woodrow as a self-deluding, tragic figure, it is buried underneath the very much more obvious intention that holy shit they built a Mad Max car.
And, well, holy shit, they built a Mad Max car. The most impressive thing about Bellflower is not what it does or says, nor how it does or says it, but that it exists. The film was made for a sum of money so tiny that it actually seems tiny: you know how you hear about how a film was made for virtually nothing, and then it turns out that it was, like $75,000, and that doesn't sound like nothing at all? Bellflower isn't that. It cost a robust $17,000, and for that there are custom cars and flamethrowers and all sorts of crazy things that exist largely because Glodell built them from the ground up. He built, for God's sake, the camera used to shoot the damn picture.
That kind of mythological production history encourages a kind of enthusiasm that the film simply doesn't justify: even setting aside somethings that are pretty much unforgivable, like the perpetual crap on the lens (there are places where that can be okay if it is an extremely specific choice, which it isn't here), as being perhaps inevitable side-effects of the dirt-cheap shot. What Bellflower still has after that, is a galling visual aesthetic that starts by coating everything in a sheen of slimy yellow - I guess to suggest the corruption of the world it takes place in, maybe? Then there is Glodell and cinematographer Joel Hodge's singularly unconventional decision to shoot absolutely everything in the shallowest depth of field that could be managed, which has the effect of making roughly 90% of the movie not just out of focus but so far out of focus that the effect of watching the movie is similar to what happens when a very nearsighted person tries to stumble about without glasses.
The film looks like shit, in short, and there is looking like shit because you're too poor to help it, and there's looking like shit because you made the conscious decision, "hey, if we did this, wouldn't it be cool?" No, it looks like shit. Or, to be strictly accurate, piss.
Then, over by here, are the characters. Unevenly played, for a start: Glodell is a tremendously unconvincing actor, Wiseman is decent, Dawson is absolutely captivating, and in the role of Milly's friend Courtney, Rebekah Brandes gives a performance all made of stiff line readings that sound very nearly like she learned them phonetically. And even less evenly written, though this returns us to that very first point: what the hell is Bellflower even supposed to be about? Because from where I'm standing, it's about how awesome teenage nihilism is when your a man in your late twenties, and also, what the fuck is with women, dude? Everything you have ever assumed about emotionally immature young men who don't understand why it's their fault that no girl has ever wanted to spend time with them; that is the very heart of Bellflower, and not ironically.
Or maybe it's just about how incredibly awesome Mad Max and The Road Warrior were (but not so much so that Glodell can be arsed to spell Lord Humungus's name right), and how cool flames jutting out of a car's exhaust can be. After a certain point, the over-directed and over-edited film really is all about its own style, which is considerable and which speaks immensely well of the filmmaker's ignenuity, and it will be absolute worth it to see how outsized his vision can get when he finds his way into some real money. At which point, I pray, he'll see fit to use somebody else's screenplay.