In Bellflower, his nervy debut, Evan Glodell stops time. Or at least that brief moment, the mess of youth, when we’re driven by lust, and careen inevitably toward each other. An apocalypse of the heart has a displacing quality — as your insides ignite, combust, and turn to ash, the world continues to ebb and flow on its own terms. Eventually that rhythm is a blessing because it forces you out of bed. The work of living requires your presence after all. Even so, who hasn’t at least once left a box of torched mementos in their wake? Glodell takes all of this as the launching point for his ambitious, angry film, a love story that builds to a fiery climax as surprising as it is satisfying.
Woodrow (Glodell) and Aidan (Tyler Dawson) are best friends and fellow pyromaniacs. They exist vaguely (without jobs or family) in suburban California, living on a steady diet of beer, whiskey, and cigarettes. They are oddly convinced there’s an impending apocalypse, and at least for that they’re making preparations. That’s how they justify their elaborate construction of flamethrowers and tricked out cars, the centerpiece of which is a bad-ass muscle car they name the Medusa. All is swell in this bromance until Woodrow meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman), a saucy blond, at a party. She bests him at a cricket-eating contest, and the way she devours them would be enough to send me packing. But the milquetoasty Woodrow is intrigued. Milly tries to warn him off, and watching him struggle to keep his cool while his heart swells is hilarious — and painfully obvious. By the end of their first date, a days-long roadtrip to a Texas food stand, Woodrow has fallen hard.
It’s worth noting that the women, even nubile Milly, are shadows at best. The Medusa, on the other hand, is awesome, all curves and steel, and deserving of their devotion, which is why Aidan is so hurt when Woodrow strays from the clubhouse. The fragile rift that grows between the boys is the most touching part of the film. If it’s homoerotic, it’s done blindly. Mad Max is clearly an inspiration, but not in tone: The Road Warrior, with its fetish gear, football pads, and assless chaps, is high camp. And outside of the action sequences, Mel Gibson’s largely silent Max could be an Antonioni anti-hero. But Woodrow and Aidan are all heart, especially because of Glodell and Dawson’s strong, committed performances.
In a way Bellflower’s flaws are also what make it great. It’s (literally) a hot mess, and one of the most memorable films I’ve seen in a long time. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” And flames are for hell, so the Mad Max pyrotechnics come in handy when things go to shit with Milly, as we all knew they would. I’m often curmudgeonly about technology, but I can really get behind a director who builds his own flamethrower (not to mention the custom SI-2K cameras used to shoot the movie). Glodell is like a demented Geppetto, tinkering in his studio, dreaming not of giving life, but of getting revenge.
Early in the film, there’s a hipster sheen to the mumbled dialogue and indie rock soundtrack (Ratatat, Lykke Li, Santigold). But there’s a great payoff in Glodell’s deliberate pacing when the high-contrast palette runs red with blood. He allows his emotions to blaze through everything else. It’s possible the boys set out to make a cool, aloof, Tarantino-style revenge story, then veered left. Almost like a mantra, Aidan repeatedly asks, “This is cool, right?” or “Do we look cool?” Which is funny, because they are basically losing their shit, and cool stopped being a factor a long time ago. This is precisely what distinguishes Bellflower from the plodding lineup. It has drama, catharsis, an over-the-top, smart, and prickly finish. And a muscle car that shoots flames! As Woodrow and Aidan, battle-weary but intact, drive off into the sunset, you know the kids are going to be all right.