SXSW '11 Review: Bellflower
At last year’s SXSW, one of the films that stuck with me was Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather, a mumblecore whodunnit that took the “genre”, if you can call it that, to a new level. This year, the film that elevates the form is without a doubt Evan Glodell’s Bellflower, a post-apocalyptic (or is it?) love story (or is it?). It’s the story of two guys, Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson), who like to mod cars and are working on a flame thrower, just in case a Mad Max-esque apocalypse comes.
When Woodrow falls for Millie (Jessie Wiseman) in a cricket eating contest, the two set up a date which leads to a road trip on a whim from California (home of the street which gives the film its name) to Texas. It is the genesis of something beautiful, something pure: inexplicable love. The first half of the film is all about how a relationship can begin; how simple and stupid love can be.
The second half of the film is all about how a relationship can devolve into a steaming mess, and how wrenching love lost can be on the soul. That’s reading between the lines of the experience of the film, which is a jaunty, at times heart-pounding, trip. All of the main characters experience some kind of physical debilitation, all because of our femme fatale’s unfaithfulness. It is a pleasure to behold the dark and disturbing places Glodell takes the characters once they try to exist in a loveless world.
Formally, Bellflower is a gritty, lo-fi endeavor. There is use of plastic- looking lenses, tilt-shifts lenses, a sheen of unmoving glass against the frame and bits of dirt and hair sitting statically between you and the film on screen. None of the effects are throwback looks, but aberrations of modern digital filmmaking. The dirt, for example, would be more organic if it were shot on film, moving and jumping around the frame. There is also an inconsistency to the lo-fi-ness. Sometimes it is a clearly applied effect, sometimes it really looks like it was shot poorly. The highlights are constantly blown out in the film. This too is a problem that is digital- specific.
These image choices bothered me at first, until the film changes directions and rears its post-love, post-apocalypse head. The style becomes more motivated with time, and now has me reevaluating the first half of the film, back when things were still all well and good.
In mainstream films, genre cinema has become refined into a science. There was a time, like back when Mad Max (which is constantly referenced throughout the film) was released that you could make a genre film and still say something, still offer more than what’s on the surface. Glodell has taken one of the most popular forms of American indie cinema (mumblecore) and flipped it into an action film that says something about our emotions, about how we experience the highs and lows of the simple things in life. Everything here is implausible, including two hipsters’ obsession with fire and cars, yet it works perfectly.
Glodell is great as the tortured Woodrow, but for me, the real treat to watch was Tyler Dawson’s Aiden. To be fair, Aiden is more of a badass and less of a softie than Woodrow, thus the more fun character to play. Still, Dawson takes the character to unexpected places. He is a not just a best friend, he is the best friend, the one we all wish we had in our court. I think he has chops to enjoy a healthy career in movies, and I can’t wait to see what other roles he takes on.
There is a debate (at least amongst myself and a friend I saw the film with) about which aspects of the film are real and which are fantasy. Perhaps none of it is fantasy, and perhaps none of it is real. It’s difficult to tell, but not as a fault to the film. Bellflower is a movie that, if nothing else, will surprise audiences. It will inspire endless conversation on the ride home. For a small indie film about twenty-somethings falling in and out of love, that’s a hell of a feat.