Writer/director Evan Glodell’s Bellflower has been something of a cult hit on the festival circuit this year, and while it never achieved a wide release, it remains a flawed but nonetheless fascinating piece of auteur, low-budget film. It’s part apocalyptic fantasy, part romantic journey, part coming-of-age saga and part lurid nightmare, all wrapped haphazardly in one violent, psycho-sexual package.
Bellflower is about two friends, Woodrow (writer/director Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson), two shiftless hipster-ish twentysomethings with brilliant, if misguided imaginations and too much idle time on their hands. They spend their days talking about how they’d handle a global apocalypse, only unlike those of us who talk about it, they’re doing something about it. They busy themselves designing and lovingly constructing flamethrowers and a Mad Max-esque collection of armaments, not to mention working on creating an absolutely bitchin’ car — in this case, a ‘72 Buick Skylark that shoots flames and growls like a monster from another planet. But in reality, they’re simply aimless kids trying without real lives or goals.
That all changes when Woodrow meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman) in a drunken night that features copious amounts of booze, a gathering of two new groups of friends, and a cricket-eating competition (bear with me here). Woodrow and Milly quickly hit it off and, after an impromptu road trip, begin a surprisingly tender and sweet courting and relationship amidst the drug- and booze-fueled late night debaucheries of their respective groups of friends. Yet all is not as loving as it appears, and over time each of them begins to do their own part to sabotage what they have. The story quickly (perhaps too quickly) spirals out of control as each one hurts the other more, until everything comes to a furious, messy and tormented climax.
It’s a curious little picture by first-timer Glodell, and clearly reflects a not-too-uncommon trait among new film makers. Glodell has a laundry list of ideas, and he tries desperately to cram them all into one picture. And for much of the film, that works, thanks to some good performances by the two leads. Glodell is affably disheveled and sweet as Woodrow, even though there’s clearly a damaged, uncertain presence lurking between his boyish, mumbling demeanor. Tyler Dawson’s Aiden is similarly strong in his performance, a raffish, uncouth mess of a manchild who wants to simply prolong his growth by bumming around with Woodrow and playing their wild, Max Rockatansky-esque games. In fact, across the board the performances are surprisingly solid considering the relatively untested performers. Oddly, the characters exist almost in a vacuum — little if any background is given about any of them. From the film’s point of view, they exist only as their fantasy and free time dictates — no word of jobs, families, nothing. If it was a conscious choice, it’s an interesting one, one that allows a tight focus on nothing but the events that they create themselves, with no impact from (or on) the outside world at all.
Visually, the film is remarkable both on its own and when considering the limited means of its production. Filmed on a budget of a paltry $17,000 and using a custom, homemade camera, Glodell creates a vivid, compelling style that suits the grimy, listless lifestyle of his characters. The entire film has a hazy, flickering sheen to it that gives it a distinct flavor, making the nights seem darker, while the days are searing, sun-smeared urban vistas. When the film devolves into a violent, hallucinatory hellscape in the wake of the characters’ increasingly twisted mental machinations, the landscape simmers and shimmers along with their fever-burnt visions, complimenting the players’ moods in ways rarely seen.
Stylistically, Bellflower hits a lot of right notes, and there is real gold to be mined from it. Yet ultimately the film simply shoots too far, overreaching its goals and becoming a muddled mess. It’s not that it’s bad — it’s actually quite good. But its ending is such a far cry from its beginning, and it falters mainly because the steps in-between don’t match those radical tonal changes. If it seems that I’m being deliberately obtuse about it, that’s not accidental. Bellflower needs to be seen in all of its lurid, twisted glory to fully understand my take on it. The gentler notes, particularly Milly and Woodrow’s courtship but also Woodrow and Aiden’s friendship, feel genuine and enjoyable, with richly realistic dialogue that’s effective in its simplicity. At the same time, the films darker moments — and it gets very dark — are harsh, unrelenting and brutal, but executed with impressive deftness. However, the dissonant relationship between those two disparate storylines never quite makes a successful connection, and as a result the final product feels disjointed and jarring.
That sense of jarring confusion is compounded with an ambiguous, uneven ending that felt unsatisfactory and, either way one chooses to interpret it, like a bit of a betrayal to the characters. It reflected the kitchen sink approach to the film — simply too many ideas were shoehorned into one picture, and under the weight of all that drama and those fantastical machinations, the film can’t quite sustain itself. Yet despite all of that, it’s absolutely a film worth seeing. Bellflower is a true piece of independent film making, replete with all of the good and bad things that come with low-budget, lovingly created artpieces. It’s got some genuinely great pieces, and some glaring missteps. Yet it’s also consistently watchable, a riveting and intense viewing experience, even when it falls to its knees.