DIY apocalypse: Hipster romantic comedy meets ‘Mad Max’ in ‘Bellflower’

Mother Medusa, the souped-up, fire-spitting muscle car from "Bellflower"
Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
Mother Medusa, the souped-up, fire-spitting muscle car from “Bellflower”

I am going to take a break from my screeds about the failures of art criticism to attempt something that I think critics actually do fairly well: advocate for art that is difficult and potentially alienating. In this case, it’s a film called “Bellflower,” which could have been a twee hipster comedy about two friends who build their own cars and flamethrowers to help each other through heartbreak. Instead, in its second act, one of the characters suffers a traumatic head injury, and the film’s narration becomes unreliable, bleak and savage.

The two friends are played by actor Tyler Dawson and by Evan Glodell, who not only stars in the film, but wrote and directed it, as well as actually building the movie’s various DIY cars and flamethrowers. He also created the camera used to film his story, piecing together various digital and analog camera parts. His camera gives everything a supersaturated, semi-focused look that looks like the cinematic equivalent of those digital filters everybody uses on their smartphones that are meant to resemble the toy cameras of the ’60s. As the film’s narrative starts growing grimmer, the resulting film has a post-apocalyptic look to it. It’s set in southern California, but it’s a southern California that seems to exist at the end of the world. Nobody works, and they waste their time at a local bar betting each other who can eat the most live crickets.

It’s here that Evan Glodell’s character meets a perky, trash-talking blond played by Jessie Wiseman, and they fall in like. And, but for the cricket-eating and the sunburned look of the film, at this point it’s essentially a DIY “(500) Days of Summer.”

But two things cast a pall over the film, and it’s always in the background, suggesting the story might go badly. First, Wiseman warns Glodell that she’s likely to hurt him, as that’s what always happens with her in relationships; he jokes that he might be the one to hurt her, and that’s the sort of joke that might not be a joke at all. Glodell and Dyson’s characters have grown up obsessed with the film “The Road Warrior,” George Miller’s action film set in an Australia after a nuclear Holocaust, where roving bands of punk rock warriors roam the wastelands, battling each other for oil. In fact, they idolize a character from the film, but it’s not Mel Gibson’s Max, who is a futuristic knight errant, grudgingly helping out the downtrodden. No, it is The Humungus, a towering villain who looks like a professional wrestler in a hockey mask and bondage gear.

In fact, Dyson has been obsessively drawing the character since he was a boy, and continues to as a young adult, despite the fact that, in the words of Alec Baldwin describing Luke Wilson’s art in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” his artwork has “not advanced.” I don’t have a sample of Dyson’s drawings from the film, so I asked my 10-year-old nephew to draw me a bodybuilder on a muscle car. The results are about the same.

A weightlifter on a muscle car
Illustration by Jack Sparber
A weightlifter on a muscle car

As children, Dyson and Glodell indulged in a juvenile fantasy about building their own souped-up muscle car, called “Mother Medusa,” and jury rigging their own flamethrowers, so that when night falls on civilization, they can take to the deserts and rule the wasteland. And they just never let that fantasy go. The two have a talent for building things, all sort-of ill-considered. As an example, Glodell has a car with a drink dispenser on his dashboard, and it dispenses whiskey, which is probably not the sort of thing you should be drinking when you’re behind the wheel of a car. The two drink all the time, and when they are drunk, they get belligerent, and when they get belligerent, sometimes they get violent. By the time we reach the midway of the film, when Wiseman hurts Glodell, as she said she would, we have a lot of ingredients in this film for a very uncomfortable second half, which is precisely what we get. As I mentioned, there is a traumatic head injury, and then the characters begin wildly abusing each other, each misbehavior in revenge for previous misbehavior, each mounting in stupidity and harm done.

It’s not an easy ride, but I found it a fascinating one. In part, I appreciated how the events of the film seemed to be a critique of the juvenile fantasies of the main characters. They have the ambition and the technical skills to be warriors of the wasteland, but, in the real world, they’re jobless goofballs who ride around on three-wheel bicycles, listen to overly precious indie rock, crash house parties, and drink cheap beer. It’s impossible to imagine them ruling a post-apocalyptic world when something as commonplace as a small heartbreak causes them so complete a meltdown. They fancy themselves warlords in the anarchy at the end of time, but can’t even handle adulthood.

The film ends with a protracted, childish, deeply unsettling monologue that makes it clear that all this talk of “The Road Warrior” is precisely what it seems to be: a fantasy of escape, conceived by children and filled with stuff children should outgrow, including mundane notions of what people will think is cool, as well as a naked, galling contempt for women. Because the film is so completely Glodell’s, it’s easy to think that this actually reflects his worldview, even though the monologue is recited by Dyson. But I don’t think so — the film instead seems to me to be a thorough refutation of these ideas, a dramatization of the disconnect between how the characters would like to think they interact with the world and how they actually live in it. 

They may, in fact, be able to make the machines to rule the wasteland, but these two aren’t likely to ever rule anything. If they continue as they have, they’re likely to spend their lives chasing a child’s dream, and leaving behind the messes caused by their childishness.

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