'Bellflower': Brutal, Beautiful
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"Bellflower" takes its name from a somewhere-in-the-nowhere-of-L.A. street, where Woodrow (writer-director-editor-camera maker Evan Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) crash-landed after they moved to California from the heartland, drawn as young men are to the promises and lies of the American frontier. Having made it to the end of the continent, they're now looking forward to the end of days: Their biggest conversational topic is how it would be awesome to have a big muscle car around just for the occasion of the world ending, which would immediately render it a social advantage. As Aiden says in one of the film's first lines, "OK, imagine the Apocalypse just started ..." This, for Aiden, is looking to the future.
But while Aiden works diligently on their post-Armageddon dream car going from being an idle idea to idling in the driveway -- a '72 Buick Skylark dubbed Medusa -- Woodrow meets and falls in love with Milly (Jessie Wiseman). Milly likes Woodrow -- he's gentle and genteel and useless in a fight, and he and Aiden are hearty, handy and hirsute in their friendship -- but she's worried about becoming his "girlfriend." "I'll hurt you and I won't be able to help it." He suggests he'll be fine. He won't be.
Like "Fight Club," "Bellflower" is about the unspoken challenge facing American young men trying to make it into manhood -- who do you have to explain to you how to be a man when your only models are the dads in the bad marriages who don't stay and the actors in the bad movies that don't stop? It is also a vigorous opening argument about the unspoken challenge facing American indie film, an increasingly tangled thicket of clichés where, shot on digital video, struggling novelists overtalk their way to a happy ending with Zooey Deschanel. It's warm and beautiful and terrible and scary, full of heart and blood and truly unique.
This realization may be a long time coming for many: With its ability -- its willingness -- to depict a love affair that goes from joy to sorrow, hand-holding to howling fury, "Bellflower" is emotionally tense as it is emotionally rewarding, brutally difficult to watch and yet still carefully made with an elegantly intricate structure that rewards repeat visitings with real clarification.
The look of the film is also somehow handmade and hallucinatory, shot with a handmade lens-and-housing rig built around a commercial camera, allowing for extraordinary play with focus, lighting and look for the more abstract moments of the film while still offering intimacy (and economy) to the dramatic ones. Glodell's performance is good: Woodrow changes and shifts throughout, and Glodell takes him everywhere. Dawson can't quite screw himself into the tighter knots in Tyler's makeup, but he has the bright, best-friend confidence and enabling charm the part and film require. And Wiseman swings between dream girl and nightmare.
Again, just as many railed against the stylish fascism of "Fight Club" (and failed to note how the film itself railed against it), many will call "Bellflower" misogynist. It's one of many arguments you can imagine the film starting, but I think it's a hollow one. As casually brutal and shockingly dark as the story can be, and is, this isn't a movie about female characters who only deserve to be hated and hurt by male ones; it's a movie about men who, confused, may only know how to hate and hurt, might only be able to imagine hate and hurt, and how this terrifies them.
Near the end, Aiden shakes his head, explaining how the end of the world will clear up a lot of gender confusion, citing the barbarian warlord of "The Road Warrior." "The Lord Humongous doesn't ask, 'Was it good for you?' He doesn't say, 'Who called?' or, 'Where were you last night?'" This is a film about that time of youth when feelings are huge enough to devour everything, where you can lie in a warm shabby room with your lover in a narrow bed just big enough to either make a future or make mistakes. "Bellflower" is part of that American tradition that takes to the road to find something in the nothing, from the murderous love of Martin Sheen in "Badlands" to the anthemic joy of Springsteen songs, and makes its way with a bold and bruised heart through the flesh and the metal, the gas and the blood, the flame and the night, to stand apart as one of the best American movies of the year.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.