Another day, another invigorating directorial debut here at Battleship Pretension. First we’re gifted David Robert Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover, a refined, heartfelt ode to memory, subjectivity, detail, and desire. Besides being recognizably human, that careful, fleet Amerindie has almost nothing in common with also-first-timer Evan Glodell’s brash, vibrant, no-fi Bellflower, which still manages a level of unprecedented excellence all its own. Bellflower, whose strangeness and willingness to bound, veer, and dart into totally uncharted territory is endearing, centers upon a pair of self-satisfied man-children, Woodrow (played by Glodell himself, who also serves as screenwriter and editor) and best friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson). The duo spend spend their days, unemployed, building flame-throwers and other ridiculous weapons and gizmos in giddy anticipation of what they’re sure is an impending apocalypse a la The Road Warrior, and toil their nights away bedding countless women and frequenting a local bar in the eponymous SoCal locale. Everything changes when Woodrow becomes smitten with Milly (Jessie Wiseman), a fellow competitor at a late-night contest and who, once assimilating into the ‘gang’ (dubbed Mother Medusa) and assuming a position all her own, is the catalyst for disaster. From there the film spirals in directions it would, for once, be a crime to spoil. Words simply cannot properly do justice to Bellflower‘s hypnotic, often mystifying narrative progression.
Bellflower—the best debut splash to cross this critic’s eyes since Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother—carries with it a potent sense of life’s rampant unpredictability, a quality that nicely mirrors that of its consistently unexpected narrative and formal turns. It’s a film where an ostensible dinner date can turn into an impassioned cross-country road trip at the drop of a hat. The future is unforeseeable, outcome in life is determined by an unruly blend of chance, happenstance, luck and, fate. And as much as the characters try to numb their own realities with delusion, no amount of outlandish weaponry can change that. This understanding—potently realized—is ultimately what lends this angst-ridden seizure of film a freeing, no-standards feel.
Like Fight Club before it, Bellflower fascinatingly exposes the heinousness and hilarity of a specific brand of masculine juvenilia, but is careful to convey its appeal as well. As in Fincher’s beloved post-modern saga, it doesn’t entirely condemn its subjects’ lifestyle or outlook/values, but rather displays a more measured, thoughtful take on them, despite the extremities into which its tone often ventures. Thusly, one could too easily charge both pictures with endorsing the very thing they set out to expose, but both are sadly cases of even-handed consideration mistaken for either indictment or glorification. But it’s due to this thoughtfulness that both movies’ rosters of characters never feel like pawns in a filmmaker’s elaborate scheme to traffic their query. In a couple of key shots early on, Glodell is careful to establish that his debut feature is, indeed, an examination, a study, almost an experiment (though surely a humanistic one) by including a seemingly superfluous sequence early on in which Aiden, arises for an early-morning hardware store run. Glodell lenses this sequence in what is a series of static compositions, clearly establishing his frame as the boundaries of his character’s existence, seeing him scurry about within the trappings in a way that suggests specimen in a cinematic petri dish. This is Glodell, already a whip-smart filmmaker, subtly conveying that the following is indeed a very purposeful reconnaissance into the foolishness of the young male.
Bellflower is not only clear-eyed and assured of its intentions, but devilishly insightful as well, particularly into the male experience. Glodell’s efforts—in both his positions as screenwriter and director—to amplify emotion and feeling to titanic proportions (he both touchingly and amusingly conflates the apocalypse with a callous act of infidelity) are not only handled in a manner that’s voluptuously sincere, but speaks to a universally human propensity to exaggerate in times of vulnerability. Feelings of jealousy, glee, anger, pride, and crushing doubt and disappointment pulse palpably through Bellflower‘s bloodstream. The film also taps successfully into a sense of ever-mounting interpersonal competition that Glodell admirably recognizes knows no boundaries, be it gender or otherwise. The film seems to, at times, inhabit the male headspace; at a certain point the movie seems to evocatively implode on itself, suggesting an emotion or feeling one of its men has suppressed so long it’s tearing him apart from the inside out. Again, though, Glodell refuses to let any condemnation slip. His debut effort gushes empathy, understanding and, miraculously, a sharp sense of humor about it all that allows its more high-reaching moments to stay afloat.
In a spot-on consideration of the film over at MUBI’s Notebook, Fernando F. Croce takes issue with a very purposeful spasm in the film’s narrative construction about halfway in. (Sam C. Mac, Editor-in-Chief of In Review Online, shares his qualm.) Though the decision was initially off-putting to me as well, I soon came to the conclusion that the choice was best taken as not a calculated convenience or cheat but as an expression of the often purposeful selectiveness of the male memory. Glodell has a razor-sharp sense of the things we opt to remember and the things we don’t. In fact, Bellflower is a gloriously fluid depiction of memory in general, and its endlessly fascinating digressions and willingness to portray figments and fragments of Woodrow’s saga and relationships out of sequence and order, boldly colored by emotion and perception, and severely skewed can at times be downright avant garde.
Glodell’s Bellflower is also a completely on-point assessment of the superficiality and tendency to escape into fantasy both very much present in the young, modern male. The filmmaker fuels finds his sometimes funny, sometimes puzzling or saddening, but always compelling evidence for the former in his Woodrow’s constant self-awareness, particularly in his concern with the impression his hair (facial or otherwise) is giving off. Shiny surfaces and appearances are revered in Bellflower, but not by its filmmakers—this isn’t a superficial movie, but one about superficiality. This is compellingly reflected in the movie’s similarly self-aware visual affectations (defined by sun-melted smears and spots of brownish grime and grit) which, in the way they acknowledge the surface-level prettiness of themselves but are ultimately cast off as hollow, seem the most ripe proof of Glodell’s approach to the entire project, and his subjects. The movie’s consideration of the way in which we try to (immaturely) stave off reality with fantasy is equally well-realized, depicted in countless split-second shots in which the camera is privy to the pages of Woodrow and Aiden’s brimming sketch book, and is also poignantly surfaces in the smallest of behavioral ticks of Glodell and Dawson’s performances.
Curiously enough, upon the occasion of what I felt was an entirely necessary second viewing of the film, I was nervous to revisit it, uneasy, almost frightened. Bellflower‘s precision is such that, despite its obvious stylizations, its core is so emotionally naked, so raw to the point of inducing intimidation and uneasiness. Such a feat—something of an all-cylinders attribute, an achievement of pen, performance, and direction—certainly recalls the prickly squabbles and hard truths of the previously mentioned I Killed My Mother, in addition to its elating stylishness. Guiding the audience through his incisive, moving, crazed salvo, however, is Glodell’s undeniable technical propulsion. Dolan’s debut is an emboldened stylistic proclamation, messy and unquestionably indebted to other works, but with a discernibly unique perspective, slant, insight, and induced emotions, all united underneath an umbrella of startling technical virtuoso and command. A film that slithers in and out of its characters’ heads, contorting, lurching, and swallowing its audience whole, this is a startling, fresh stylistic statement all its own that takes active resistance not to get swept up in.
This piece is being published in accordance with Bellflower‘s Houston, Portland, and Phoenix releases. Please do yourself a favor and seek it out—its release expansion plan can be found on the website of its distributor, Oscilloscope Pictures, here.