Probably the most telling moment of Bellflower, the debut feature film from Evan Glodell, occurs early on, when the main character (played by Glodell) is at a bar and asked by a girl where he lives, what he does, etc. From Wisconsin originally, he says, and he's building a flamethrower. It's funny to a point, and he recognizes the potential humor, but the character is serious. The surface of the movie is far more crowded than a single exchange, of course, but it is absolutely indicative of Bellflower's interests and essence and where it ends up going. The film is populated with disjointed, seemingly jobless twentysomethings whose behavior oscillates from weird to unrealistic. Apocalyptic fantasies dominate, both the movie and the characters. Inarticulate profanity and booze flow freely, helping to make Bellflower at least partially feel like a branch of the hipster mumblecore tree.
Its hook would be that the film is a cross between the Mad Max ideas the two friends Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) have largely built their lives around and the love story and subsequent break-up between Woodrow and Milly (Jessie Wiseman), the girl from the bar. He's a little awkward and almost nerdish while she's more of a free spirit who warns him from the start that things will not end up well between the two of them, that she'll hurt him. They meet as competitors in a cricket-eating contest at a bar, which is shot, like much of the film, with an odd beauty to it. Their first date takes them on an impromptu drive from California to Texas. She's impressed by the liquor-distributing spout he built in his car. We're not sure exactly what they see in each other. There's also a lingering potential complication in the guy with whom Milly lives. Lots of strands and warning signs and ominous hints are in the mix, beginning with the mashed together opening. Not much is crystal clear in Bellflower but there does always seem to be the threat of something bad occurring.
Some of the potential criticisms of the film are easy. The dialogue has an everyday, authentic banality to it that doesn't sound any better onscreen than it does in real life. Some of the acting is checkered with emotional limitations. Spontaneity threatens to become stupidity or lack of believability. But what's most bothersome is the hollowness. To what end is everything happening? There's an impact to be made in the viewer, certainly, but it's only visceral. Ideas are missing or, if we're to be charitable, murky. As the final act plays out with such intentional violence and despair, the switch seems too pronounced. A soured relationship has caused, essentially, the real apocalypse for this character and he's entirely unprepared. His coping ranges from odd to bizarre to silly to scary. It's a lot of things at once but how much it actually resonates is questionable, partly because the character always seems so undeveloped.
Glodell's film does elicit strong opinions, and it's something that could conceivably become a cult piece over time (though one which might then be outgrown rather fast). It really shouldn't be dismissed outright, in part because we've probably never seen anything quite like Bellflower. Bathed in ugly yellow shades and shot by Joel Hodge with a handmade camera built, like the flamethrower and car seen in the movie, by Glodell and his crew, this is something of keen interest visually and thematically. There's no doubt that Bellflower is a striking work. The dreamy sad music, too, goes a long way in building the viewer's reactions. That we're seeing a movie made for just $17,000 is also rather remarkable. But any praise should also carry a disclaimer. The emperor's clothes and all of that nonsense.
More specifically, Bellflower consistently misses in a manner so frustrating and oblivious as to deny any benefit of the doubt about the picture's creative limitations. That Glodell could assume some of the leaps here deserve a pass is annoying to the point of insult. He uses violence without any understanding of its needed impact or support from elsewhere in the film. Emotion is always stilted, unclear, even overblown. The narrative conveniences used require a suspended reality that isn't deserved. The goodwill built up in the sweet, if quirky, first half dissolves far too quickly afterward, due largely to one asshole catastrophe after another that ultimately brings about fatigue and an overwhelming sense of disbelief in the viewer. What had been a strange, engrossing film goes off the rails and completely fails to explain itself.
The idea that Bellflower is a criticism of its characters might prove compelling for some, though there would seem to be little to actually support such a view aside from one's own general distaste at their actions. If you do want to go along with that theory, the two males can be seen as worthless incarnations of young adults whose development became arrested or stalled. They've immersed themselves in an alternate reality of sorts, built around a movie, and they struggle to cope with life's truths. It's a cruel, sober reading of the picture, which still might not improve the view of it because there's a persistent clumsiness even there. Making peace with Bellflower instead would probably best allow for an appreciation of what Evan Glodell did with limited resources and a hope that his ideas in the future coalesce a little better. Or venture into territory of greater resonance.
Bellflower was given a theatrical release by Oscilloscope Laboratories and the label has now brought the film to the U.S. marketplace. It's being put out both in a DVD-only edition and a Blu-ray+DVD set. This review is of just the DVD, which is dual-layered and region-free.
Image quality is excellent. The unique look of the film makes it a little hard to compare to a typical new release. You'll notice frequent dirt and such on the lens during the movie. I don't know whether this was a result of the homemade camera that was used or if it was just an intentional aesthetic choice. A bit odd but hardly a fault of the transfer, which is progressive. The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. No digital imperfections were noticed.
Two audio options are included, both in English. One is a two-channel stereo track. The other is a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround option. Both distribute dialogue and, especially, the music well, with the surround mix predictably showing more depth and range. Subtitles, in English for the hearing impaired, are offered and are white in color.
The array of bonus features is a little slim, with a glaring avoidance of any attempt to deeper explain the film. Instead, a "Behind the Scenes of Bellflower" (23:41) featurette emphasizes the process of making it and getting the movie into the Sundance Film Festival. The "Medusa Rundown" (10:10) is a neat look at the car used, done in a sort of MTV Cribs style. "Outtakes" (7:58) include, though thankfully aren't limited to, vomiting. The concise, evocative original theatrical trailer (2:03) can also be found here. Some of the interviews, as well as the overall feeling of trying to be cool for cool's sake, tend to confirm a lot of the fears about the film's general lack of substance.
Trailers for other Oscilloscope-released films can also be accessed from the main menu.