Two sets of friends — Woodrow and Aiden, Milly and Courtney — meet at a cheap bar. Woodrow (writer/director Evan Glodell) and Milly (Jessie Wiseman) flirt over a cricket-eating contest. Woodrow is strong but shy. Milly is headstrong and not shy at all. She maneuvers him into asking for a date — not unwillingly. He proposes someplace nice, and she insists on the opposite. The worst place he knows is a dive he passed in Texas, and she says “let’s go.” So on their first date, they leave California for terrible Southern food.
These friends — I’ll include Woodrow’s friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson) but not Courtney (Rebekah Brandes) — live without much direction or purpose. They’re college-age adults but I don’t think any of them went to college. Aiden and Woodrow spend their time building hardware inspired by Mad Max — a flame thrower, a tricked-out muscle car. Milly seems a little more together — she might have a job, although nobody in Bellflower ever mentions work. Most characters drink or are drunk in most scenes. Nobody thinks of it as alcoholism yet — they probably still think of it as “partying.”
If it’s a party, it’s not very festive. A sadness hangs over everything, like the characters are waiting for their lives to take shape. Or maybe they’ve exhausted all their options. In any case, it’s a bleak town, made slightly more pleasant by old and new friends and cheap drinks.
Cinematographer Joel Hodge offers a bag of visual tricks — extreme shallow focus, pushing the yellows and green, even shooting through a dirty lens at times. It’s a little showy at first, but it feels well used to de-glamorize California, to cast the world in a harsh and dusty light.
Bellflower jumps ahead to a time when Milly and Woodrow have been together for a while, and the cracks of boredom and jealousy start to show. The sidekicks, Aiden and Courtney, are bored and jealous too, with their respective best friends spending all their time together. Milly’s ex-boyfriend Mike (Vincent Grashaw) adds some macho menace to the emotional stew.
Then Woodrow gets into an accident, and that’s also when the relative stability of their lives starts to unravel — slowly at first but with increasing pressure until Bellflower starts to look like a student-film Shakespearean tragedy.
Writer/director Evan Glodell manages to save the film from maudlin melodrama by using Woodrow’s head injury to show alternate timelines. Novice filmmakers are notoriously bad at overestimating audience sympathy, and at first it looks like Glodell will fall into the same trap. But he keeps it real by letting the emotion fill the screen, then switching back to acknowledge that we’re all closer to Willy Loman than Hamlet or Mad Max.
Made for a reported $17,000, Bellflower shows that it is still possible to make independent films in the U.S. that are worthy of notice and distribution.