In considering Bellflower, picture a dirty back-hallway light fixture: stained, buzzing, scarred, two trapped moths desperately flapping in the yellowed plastic globe. The moths are Woodrow and Aiden, BFFs transplanted from Wisconsin to California, who find the only thing waiting in the west is each other. Their time is spent building flamethrowers and cars, burning rubber and ejaculating impotent flame in mild actualization of pathetic apocalyptic fantasies. But they realize too late that the ‘fantasy’ has arrived. They’re already living the end of their world.
In many ways I hate these two people. Woodrow, played effectively by writer/director Evan Glodell, is a shapeless mass, not quite a man, something to pet and discard. And Aiden (Tyler Dawson) is a fountain of energy but indiscriminate in its use, and most articulate only when speaking through the vernacular of the Mad Max survival fantasy films.
Their existence is meandering and likely doomed to fail, like a three-legged dog wandering the desert in search of water. In the case of Woodrow and Aiden, actually, the search is for booze and fire and women, but only if the women don’t assert too great an influence.
Hating the characters is not the same thing as hating the film, however, and I was transfixed by Bellflower. This is an auspicious debut. Such a cliche, I know. So to be more specific, this is a ragged, occasionally tellingly amateurish work, but honest and so heartfelt that I writhed as the characters in Bellflower broke into shards. I can’t say I liked the film, exactly, but I can’t stop thinking about it.
We open as Aiden and broken-hearted Woodrow are living in their little globe; I don’t think they’d call the state of existence ‘trapped,’ not yet. Their neighborhood is dingy; their living spaces disheveled; their style ‘lazy hipster.’ No one seems to work, or clean, or do much of anything but drink and screw and fight. It’s the background of Pulp’s ‘Common People‘ transplanted to Southern California, shot through a faded, grimy lens.
In what may be the only ‘meet cute’ involving live insect consumption, Woodrow finds Milly (Jessie Wiseman). She’s a mildly luminous, very ‘real’ girl whose ‘fuck it, let’s do this’ attitude catches him like a twisted pop song hook. They court in whirlwind style — their first date is a days-long excursion to Texas — but with only mild, puppydog passion. I think that’s all Woodrow has in him. She warns him that things will end badly, and they do. Is her warning a sort of prophetic self-awareness, or merely a preemptive excuse? I can’t answer that.
Woodrow can’t see who she really is, however. He only tries to fit her into the fantasy life he and Aiden have long nurtured. Aiden soon fades into the background as Woodrow and Milly nestle into one anothers’ lives. Nudged rather than propelled by their romance, the film’s first hour is trying but also sweet. I wanted them to find the simple, pretty redemption that Woodrow seeks.
What that follows in the wake of their breakup, however, is what transforms Bellflower into an uncomfortable, even frightening experience and, unexpectedly, one I didn’t want to quit.
It should just be a breakup. But Woodrow is physically and emotionally traumatized by his romantic downturn. He trades an objective reality for one bulging with hyper-masculine revenge action informed by ‘end of the world’ sexual politics and The Road Warrior character Lord Humungus. Aiden, no longer sidelined, reveals his depth of character by caring for his friend like a father, but even that has dire consequences. A cycle of selfish retribution that begins as a relatively mild outbreak of violence soon infects everyone in this small shaky orbit. In that cycle Evan Glodell constructs a jaggedly rhythmic crescendo of prosaic horror.
Spit and you’ll hit a half-dozen debut indies that substitute nostalgic period artifice for conviction. The aged, dirty-fingernail quality of this film’s sound and image is not only appropriate to the story, however, but endemic to the characters and the lives they’ve burrowed themselves into. Shot with customized cameras and a periodic disregard for clarity and color, the screen is layered with anger and mounting despair in a way that feels captured rather than calculated. If you leave this one feeling as if your skin has yellowed, you won’t be alone.
Bellflower is populated by people who are often horrible, and in real life Milly is someone from whom I would flee, but I can respect her lack of artifice. She’s just as lost as everyone else, but feels to me like she’s at least lost in the real world. I also respect Glodell for not demonizing her, which would be all too easy to do. She masterminds the breakup with Woodrow, but the destruction that follows isn’t her fault. She may help instigate, and ultimately participate in the action, but she is only one of many who could have said ‘stop’ at any time.
I saw in Bellflower uncomfortable reflections of my own experiences that followed a turning-point breakup: aimlessness and alcohol, and arrogance that coheres as a shield. Not the violence, but the hope for violence, the stupid self-indulgent idea that it is easier to burn pain away. (It’s a familiar movie moment, too. Viz: “I felt like destroying something beautiful.”) Viewing the film through the lens of my own experience, I recognized a prickly and sometimes tender honesty hidden amongst the escalating violence.
Building to a savage climax isn’t the film’s only ambition. Glodell does not forget about the ties between Woodrow and Aiden. There might be a manner of redemption on hand, or at least the suggestion of a dawning awareness that there is something outside the self. That’s the final stage in Bellflower’s construction of a raw effigy of the arrogant, solipsistic ego of young men. And if the film doesn’t quite burn that fucker down, it does at least show you where to find a flamethrower.
tl;dr: Man up and move on.
/Film score: 7.5 out of 10