Each week on “Unknown Pleasures,” Jake recommends a film whose reputation has fallen to the wayside, and has since become underseen, underrated, or undervalued. This week, it’s Evan Glodell’s Bellflower.
In case you missed it, the 88th Annual Academy Awards aired over a week ago, and summarily stuck a fork in 2015. One of the top winners of the evening was, surprisingly, Mad Max: Fury Road. Garnering a whopping six wins out of ten nominations, Fury Road was a trailblazing filmgoing experience that lived to defy all expectations, and as a result became one of the most satisfying films of the year (as well as this writer’s personal favorite). It was grand picture, full of spectacle and destruction, and suggested new life for the Mad Max franchise. But before there was Fury Road, there was Bellflower. Aptly described in its tagline as “a love story with apocalyptic stakes,” Bellflower is a micro-budgeted, searing and energetic piece of filmmaking, as well as an auspicious debut from writer/director Evan Glodell. It’s also an ode to Australian director George Miller’s greatest creation, utilizing the spirt of Mad Max to fuel the insanity that drives Bellflower forward.
Bellflower tells the tale of childhood pals Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson), a pair of aimless buddies who enjoy drinking, partying, and building weapons in their garage. The duo are Mad Max aficionados (having watched the VHS over a hundred times as kids), and are self-proclaimed leaders of a gang called “Mother Medusa.” Their latest project finds them constructing a functional flamethrower and a fire-breathing car in order to gear up for the inevitable apocalypse, which they believe is nigh. At a local bar they meet Milly (Jessie Wiseman) and Courtney (Rebekah Brandes), the former of whom challenges Woodrow to a cricket-eating contest, and both are instantly smitten. They form a dalliance, much to the chagrin of their respective friendships, and at the core of this relationship lies something so ominous and so catastrophic that it will threaten to destroy everything and everyone they know and love. Who knew romance could be so deadly?
Simply put, Bellflower should not work nearly as well as it does. Shot for a paltry sum of $17,000, the film is undeniably rough around the edges, but I think this adds to its inherent charm. The DIY proclivities of Aiden and Woodrow mirror the aesthetic of the production, which was shot using a homemade digital camera that has been purportedly cobbled together from spare parts. Cinematography by Joel Hodge is a standout, bathing Southern California locations in volcanic reds and acidic yellows with aplomb. It’s never a “pretty” or “polished” picture (in fact, grime appears to have been intentionally smeared on the lens in some specific shots), but it is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and is consistently invigorating to watch.
Also of special mention is the “Mother Medusa” vehicle, a terrifying, hell-on-wheels creation. Painted jet black and spitting flames out of rear exhaust pipes, the “Medusa” is a glorious sight to behold, and once it arrives for its first close-up, barreling down the street of a docile, suburban neighborhood, you may need a clean change of underwear. It’s that shit-your-pants kind of awesome.
Performances are appropriately full-blooded, it not always assured. As a portrait of jealousy and wounded male machismo, Glodell is terrific, and often fascinating to watch as a mild-mannered nice guy being slowly driven insane. Wiseman and Brandes also acquit themselves well and elevate what could have been two thankless roles with tender performances. It’s Dawson who steals the show as Aiden, bringing much-needed laughs to the proceedings with his cheery performance. My only complaint is, despite the good performances, is that the dialogue could easily use some fine-tuning. The actors fit their parts, but they’re often left to contend with excruciatingly simple lines of dialogue (words like “dude” and “fuck” are common vernacular) or over-cooked emotions. Still, it’s a minor quibble in a excellent film.
Sensitive viewers and the faint-hearted need not apply (the opening of the film, which finds Woodrow and Aiden firing a shotgun at a propane tank suspended by chains, is sure to send nervous mothers running), but for those who are more adventurous and are looking for something innovative and exciting, with a spring in its step and an impish sense of humor, then I urge you to go seek out Bellflower. Lord Humungus commands it.