'Bellflower' features fine acting and great cinematography in service of a baffling story

One of the pillars of storytelling—whether in film, prose or even character-driven folk songs—is creating a compelling protagonist. He or she doesn't have to be moral or lawful, but a protagonist should be interesting enough that an audience wants to find out where the story goes, as opposed to just wishing the story would end.

The story in Bellflower goes ... well, all over the damn place. While the story has a main character, it's hard to elevate him to the role of protagonist simply because he has more dialogue than anybody else. His journey is incredibly hard to understand, sympathize with or, frankly, even care about. A bit of that, at least, is due to the nature of writer-director Evan Glodell's project as a whole, which is scattered and unfocused like the characters themselves.

Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) are building a flamethrower. That is, as far as we can tell, the reason for their existence. Aiden has the look of a male model who hasn't been discovered, while Woodrow resembles ... someone named Woodrow. Their idea is that this flamethrower will help them create a gang either for or after the apocalypse (it's a film that could use subtitles to describe what the characters mean instead of what they say), and that this gang will follow the teachings of Humungus, the hockey-mask-wearing kingpin in the movie The Road Warrior.

At a party, Woodrow volunteers for a cricket-eating challenge, which is how he meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman). The next night, the two go on their first date, driving from Los Angeles to the middle of Texas to eat at the worst restaurant Woodrow can think of. Meanwhile, Aiden begins sizing up Milly's friend, Courtney (Rebekah Brandes), for pretty much the same kind of thing.

Then there's some cheating and a post-argument car accident that leaves Woodrow banged up, heavily bandaged and probably a little brain-damaged. His thoughts turn extraordinarily dark after the accident, as he imagines a kind of personal apocalypse brought on by the very flamethrower he's designed for a much-loftier purpose. All of that would be great if it hung together in any way—if the pieces weren't mere pieces.

In fairness, there are some elements of Bellflower that truly pay off. The cinematography, particularly with the exterior scenes, is sun-drenched, colorful and dynamic. From a technical standpoint, Glodell deserves praise for building a new camera to capture this story. The Coatwolf Model II is something of a steampunk creation that combines a 4-by-5-inch-view camera (the old kind with a bellows) and a top-of-the-line digital model that, because of the way Glodell has rigged it, essentially records the images that pass through the other half of the camera. The result is obviously unique, and gives his film the look of months in the post-production suites.

Considering the budget was reportedly $5,000, and Glodell by his own admission shot without permits, used cars that weren't registered or insured, walked around parts of Los Angeles with an active flamethrower, and ran out of the small amount of money that he had to pay the cast and crew well before the 90-day production wrapped, the fact that Bellflower made it into Sundance this year is a testament to sheer willpower, and probably a little bit of good fortune. It gained a quick following in Utah, and fans of truly independent cinema may have found themselves a new god to worship.

But there's still that giant bear trap of the film's script. If Glodell is making a point about a lost generation, then his belief is that the generation is truly, unequivocally lost. There's no indication that these characters know where they are, how they got there or where they're going. It's as if, with apologies to the coming apocalypse, we could spy on Woodrow and Aiden two years on, and it would be the same story.

Glodell's script is likely improvised to a large degree. The dialogue is very naturalistic, and when dialogue is improvised, that's often where the seams between scenes and character interpretations will show. It's easier to forget to throw in a character's name or a point of motivation that foreshadows future events when it's not on the page. That's where the evidence points here; lots of details aren't as clear as maybe they should be. As a conscious choice, the naturalistic approach was probably the best way to go; you don't want to script these characters in the way you would crusty East Coasters in a David Mamet play. But on the other hand, the story is so weird and disconnected and dreamlike that the narrative wreaks havoc on a concrete understanding of everything.

The performances, particularly the work by Jessie Wiseman, are very intense, so that's a plus. But the solid acting and the virtuosic technical achievement of the cinematography are in the service of a story that ultimately doesn't deserve them.

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