Who would have thought that in 2011 one of the most compelling, challenging, and visually dazzling movies of the year would come not from a major Hollywood studio that can afford to hire the best writers, directors, and cinematographers around, but from a team of reckless young filmmakers who built their own camera and literally put their lives on the line to make an independent movie that seemed destined for disaster?
At the onset, Evan Glodell's visionary feature debut, Bellflower, may appear to be little more than the latest in a long line of talky independent dramas centered on the lives of free-spirited, pop-culture-obsessed slackers looking for love. Then the shotgun and propane tank come out...
Best friends since childhood, Road Warrior-obsessed pals Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) form a two-man gang dubbed "Mother Medusa" and devote all of their spare time to building flamethrowers in anticipation of the impending apocalypse. Their ultimate goal: to build a post-holocaust supercar that will inspire awe in the masses and immediately establish them as the leaders of the primitive new society. But when Woodrow falls in love with Milly (Jessie Wiseman) following a chance meeting, the inseparable buddies begin to grow apart, and Aiden develops a crush on Milly's best friend, Courtney (Rebekah Brandes). Later, Woodrow and Milly's whirlwind romance comes to a sudden end, leading to a tragic accident that leaves Woodrow badly injured. Meanwhile, as Woodrow recovers, Aiden begins work on the Mother Medusa-mobile. Unfortunately, all is not well with Woodrow, and with his heart broken and his brain potentially damaged, the situation soon erupts into a spectacular explosion of shocking violence.
Bellflower feels like a film born of mistakes, frustrations, and limitations, and perhaps it's precisely that manic energy that makes it so impulsively watchable. It's a small miracle when any independent film actually gets finished and released, but watching Bellflower, it's obvious that this determined group of young filmmakers was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to see their project through to the end. Everything about the movie comes across as completely unique and custom-made, and for good reason, too: not only was Bellflower shot on a camera hand-crafted exclusively to give the film its unique look, but the flamethrower and the Medusa car were both fully functional -- giving the production an element of real danger that we can actually feel as the story slowly begins slipping out of control. Bellflower's distinctive, seductively expressionistic cinematography genuinely sets the film apart from the deluge of no-budget features shot on industry-standard cameras, reinforcing the filmmakers' intense DIY aesthetic and completely demanding our undivided attention.
Even the best story can be hampered by poor writing, amateurish acting, or clumsy direction -- problems that affect countless independent features. Fortunately, Bellflower's talented young cast handles the snappy conversational dialogue in a way that's entirely convincing. The friendship between Glodell's and Dawson's lead characters feels unwaveringly sincere and natural; Wiseman gradually brings Milly's impulsiveness and damaged personality to the surface in a manner that lets us see why Woodrow would have fallen for her; and Brandes is entirely sympathetic as the vulnerable best friend who becomes swept up in a situation beyond her control. Meanwhile, writer/director Glodell's screenplay is structured in a way that lures us in with the conventions of a typical, yet skillfully written, indie romantic drama before blindsiding us with some decidedly unconventional storytelling techniques in the final act. There may be moments early on when the overwrought hipster melodrama elicits fits of involuntary laughter -- then we get hit with a nonlinear sucker punch that leaves us scrambling to regain our bearings for the next two scenes as we desperately try to figure out where the story is headed next.
For someone out there, the apocalypse will happen not weeks or years from now, but today. Bellflower is an apocalyptic drama told on an intimate scale, and one that is likely to leave viewers with plenty to ponder once the mushroom clouds in their minds have finally dissipated.