Catharsis on the other end of horrific violence… one of the many fantasies this movie entertains.

A film that defies easy labeling, Bellflower is extremely difficult to pin down. On thing I know for sure is that it’s he kind of movie I ate up with a bucket in high school. It’s the definition of an indie flick, in other words, and as outside of narrative convention and filmmaking norms as you’d expect from that. Well, as long as you’re aware enough to not conflate the “under $30 million” branding of indie that has become common these last ten years. No, Bellflower hearkens to the before time, the long long ago. Fittingly, it’s possessed of a timeless self-possession that makes it as compelling as it is off-putting.

The first hurdle to overcome is the naturalistic acting. I’m not one to lightly toss judgment around about acting in films. It’s an incredibly hard job and bad performances are more often the fault of the people behind the camera than in front of. It’s my responsibility as a critic, even an amateur one, to be aware of that and take account for it even if the audience isn’t. As best as I can anyway. There was a period of adjustment to what Bellflower was trying to do with these performances. The dialogue is as naturalistic as the performances. You get the sense that these guys are supposed to remind us of people we know and they do… somehow.

The familiarity is also derived from the core story of the film. At first it seems like it’s just going to be about Woodrow (Evan Glodell, writer and director as well) and his best friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson) as they mill about in the small California city obsessing about the apocalypse, the movie The Road Warrior and their preoccupation with flamethrowers, muscle cars, and an imaginary gang that crests the overarching metaphor of masculinity that is the dominant theme for most of the film. What I mean by core story, though, is that Bellflower is essentially a story about a relationship that, doomed from the beginning to a point beyond clarity, goes horribly wrong. There’s a familiarity in it, for me a pretty personal one that I’ll get into. Suffice it to say that I imagine those people who don’t like this film, and there are plenty of them, probably found this either too uncomfortable or simply not relatable because they never had similar experiences.

Jessie Wiseman, who plays Milly, is what they mean when they say someone is a “natural beauty”.

The film starts to clarify into a solid narrative once Woodrow meets Milly. While Aiden is the adventurous one, to the point of being an unlikable cock for most of the movie actually, he is able to push Woodrow into a cricket-eating contest and some dive bar they hang out at. Opposite him is Milly, an obvious wild child. The attraction is instant but unfolds naturally (that word again) rather than feeling as contrived or over-emphasized as these things so often are in mainstream films. Their relationship is the heart of the movie and the point where all the vague but poignant expressions of masculinity and ennui converge.

Basically, Woodrow is a sweet guy. He’s a softy who takes things in stride but is just a bit too insecure and clingy for a girl like Milly. She knows it, too, trying to talk him out of wanting her as his girlfriend. Meanwhile, the seeds of the tiny social world that develops between Woodrow and Aiden and Milly’s circle of friends begin to be planted so that, when the film skips forward what seems like a few months, the forecast downfall happens with every piece in place. Not that Bellflower fails to be surprising. Still, Milly’s fucked up and sadly typical way of dealing with her obvious dissatisfaction with the relationship happens predictably and leaves Woodrow broken in more ways than one. You hate her for this and it isn’t exactly unfair though her motives and overall character are understandable because after the rage and loathing and jealousy pass, you usually see your ex was a human after all. Just a fucked up one.

Woodrow an his increasingly violent fantasies are used in a somewhat cheap fake-out sequence that goes on just long enough to be a convincing chapter while also being just crazy enough to exploded the somewhat mundane reality of the film.

It’s not all bad between them. The good times they share are effective for the audience and feel totally pure and honest. Part of the effectiveness stems from the knowledge that this early bliss is going to go bad places, and there are hints of that in the film’s non-sequential and somewhat impressionist opening images. A box with the words “Milly’s Shit” written on it hangs over the film like a shroud but most of the early scenes between Woodrow and Milly are sweet enough to make you forget about that and hope that things are going to work out, even though you know full well they fucking won’t.

As a result, Bellflower becomes about the apocalypse of self. Woodrow’s life is now the apocalypse. It’s not exactly subtle. It’s stirring anyway because you really have to feel for this guy, not only because of his emotional state but because in the aftermath of finding Milly fucking her creepy ex-roommate, he gets hit by a car and left with a swollen brain. The only silver lining for Woodrow is that he looks like a badass. For all that, he is no longer the master of his fate and all those pretensions to machismo and badassery are swallowed up in his depression, a condition that may or may not be brought on by brain damage. Aiden becomes a considerably more likable guy during this part of the film, too, as his expressions of friendship and protectiveness of Woodrow, though much of it occurs in the fake-out sequence, solidifies some good will. He still talks like a meathead, though.

Aiden being the douche of the party, before things really go to shit.

There’s a deep nihilism to this film. It’s first expressed in the aimless lifestyle that Woodrow and Aiden share not only with each other, but seemingly with everyone else around their age in whatever town this is. Their yearning for an apocalypse, Aiden’s repeated admiration of Lord Humongous, the cartoon villain of The Road Warrior, and their experiments with flamethrowers and other nonsense is all a marker for not only that tone of ennui and meaninglessness, but also for the meandering sense of their own manhood. Aiden seems to really think being a man is about fucking shit up, fighting dudes, and nailing chicks. Woodrow doesn’t seem to know what he thinks, but in practice is a lot less of a caveman. In the end, this is saying something about what has to happen to us for all these pretensions to come to light. Aiden never receives that challenge in the same way Woodrow does, but they’re sort of two sides of a coin that this film is presenting as its thesis. The trials are undergone primarily by Woodrow, but Aiden is the mouthpiece for misguided aspirations, for what they’re supposed to be “about” as men. Both of these guys are meant to be talking to the audience in a way, fusing together these parallel themes into one narrative whole.

That said, this film is in no way didactic. It’s too remote for that.

The technical stuff deserves some consideration. Bellflower was shot mostly on cheap handheld cameras and it really shows in some places, especially interior shots. There are times, though, some of which I pulled for the images that accompany this review, where the cinematography is beautiful and Glodell shows a talented eye. On the not so technical side, this film’s soundtrack is excellent and this is owed primarily to the original music supplied by Jonathan Keevil. The song that plays over the final scene is especially good, reinforcing a sense of totally appropriate and somewhat mundane (given the fake-out sequence and it’s escalation of violence and tension) catharsis.

In the aftermath of that long bit I keep calling the “fake-out sequence” I was left a bit disoriented by the film. That sequence was so powerful that the sudden jettisoning of it as part of the film’s reality left me unclear and a bit troubled on what the fuck was going on and where this story was trying to go. Then the end rolls around with Aiden basically helping Woodrow take the first steps to letting go, and it happens with a dramatic gesture that is immensely familiar and even cliche but the road to getting there is anything but cliche so somehow it becomes moving.

So while Bellflower is a movie that asks a bit from its audience, it’s pretty audacious and deserves a shot even if you end up not liking it. I found it moving, especially in its depiction of how people fuck up relationships in spite of each other and themselves. In the inexplicable and completely arbitrary nature of some forms of cheating, of the lingering and intensified passion between people even as they try to destroy each other, and in the final and banal ejection  of all that angst and pain in one symbolic act that you might not be strong enough to face alone.

I need to watch this one again sometime. With Jonathan!

I dunno if it’s appropriate to close this review on an image of happier times between these two…