In Bellflower — the dystopian micro-indie that galvanized Sundance last January — a run-of-the-mill romantic disaster is swiftly followed by a crippling accident. His heart broken, his brain damaged, and his neck brace soaked with blood, Woodrow (played by Bellflower's writer and director, Evan Glodell) sets out to make Milly (Jessie Wiseman), the girl who hurt him, hurt as much as he does. To Woodrow, the end of the love affair is the end of the world. Luckily, he and his best friend Aidan (Tyler Dawson) have been preparing for the actual apocalypse — inventing their own flamethrowers, tricking out a '72 Buick into a super getaway car they call Medusa — and soon the awesome toys the boys have been building in their Ventura backyard are put into service, climaxing in a sexually violent rampage.
The first half "was supposed to be shown like a memory, how you only remember the golden parts of falling in love," Glodell notes. "Then it becomes a nightmare."
Falling in love is not exactly what comes to mind when you look at the poster for Bellflower, which prominently features the souped-up muscle car and a big explosion. Medusa is not only the co-star of the movie, but also its marketing mascot: Oscilloscope Laboratories, Bellflower's distributor, has shown off the sweet ride at film festivals, and even sent Medusa on the car show circuit to advertise this shoestring indie romance to an unlikely audience. Why focus on the car in marketing a movie about a young love gone wrong?
"It's a fucking badass car, frankly," says Oscilloscope president David Fenkel.
Indeed, there is a lot of badass in Bellflower, and casual viewers might see its aggressively male posturing as its only reason to exist. But Bellflower's secret is that beneath all the flames, fights, and blood lies an examination of dashed hopes and wounded pride. The violent bluster of the year's most macho film is actually a kind of bait-and-switch for a movie that's really about the fragility of modern masculinity. These are dudes who throw flames to cover up their feelings.
The self-financed movie was truly a labor of love. Glodell assembled the cast and crew through mutual friends, and soon they were united enough in the pursuit of Bellflower to christen themselves a collective, which they called Coatwolf. With no film school training or industry experience, Glodell and his frequently insolvent gang custom-built a camera and went without permits (and lens cleaner) in favor of shooting during 20-hour days for more than several months. By the end of principal photography, Glodell had sold all of his belongings and was living in the abandoned wing of an office building to avoid paying rent.
Bellflower has been rapturously received by some ("Glodell elevates the ordinary experiences of friendship and romance into the stuff of legend," wrote an enthusiastic indieWIRE critic). But another camp views the movie as something like a mumblecore version of torture porn. Devin Faraci, blogging at (irony alert) Badass Digest, declared Milly "a projected male fantasy" and described the film as the "equivalent of those GOP lawmakers who rail against homosexuality and keep rentboys on the side," glamorizing violent male fantasies on one hand and then trying to end the film with what could be read as a message about forgiveness.
What motivated Glodell to film himself inflicting so much pain on a woman? A woman, of course. He wrote the script in response to a real-life relationship, one where he fell in love so hard that the breakup left him in pieces. "It was this unbearable emotional pain, and I felt like I was going through something that no one warned me about," he says. "That's when I knew what my first movie would be. I'd seen movies about breakups, but I'd never seen anyone try to make a movie about what it's really like to have your heart broken."
From Fatal Attraction to He's Just Not That Into You, women of the world have been well warned that the end of love means we'll end up crying in sweatpants with a tub of ice cream (at best) or lurking with knives and poison outside a former flame's house (at worst). But in a pantheon that includes such emo hits as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Bellflower could well be the most honest film in recent memory to tackle that pain, and the irrational self-indulgence that comes with it, from inside the young male heart and brain.
Viewed through a smokescreen and a ball of fire, maybe Glodell does look like a misogynist, but there's a Trojan horse tactic at work here. In spite of all of their macho toys, Bellflower's male protagonists are kind of girly. Romantic to the point of foolishness with women and protective to the point of selflessness with each other, they adopt the traditional "chick flick" roles of jilted, moping lover and emotionally supportive BFF.
"A lot of our culture is about suppressing conflicting parts of ourselves to fit one definition," co-star Dawson says. "[But] the characters are all these different things. They're sissies, having a terrible time with women, but they're macho because they're into all this mechanical stuff."
Undoubtedly, Bellflower celebrates unchecked masculine fantasy, but it does so as part of the filmmaker's fearless exploration — and self-critique — of his own confusion about women. Early drafts of the script made Milly a monster with no remorse; through the filmmaking, Glodell began to see her side of the story. "A huge part of the movie is about young men learning about women," he says. "You're talking about a character who has, in his eyes, been demolished by a woman. I think, at the end, he has the exact opposite realization—that it's not her fault."