In interviews, writer/director/gearhead Evan Glodell has admitted he based his debut feature, “Bellflower,’’ on a relationship that went spectacularly sour in his early 20s. That’s easy to believe: The movie has the ugly, self-punishing tone of a confession written down and shoved in the back of a drawer. “Bellflower’’ is hardly a consistent piece of work, but even when it falls apart toward the end in a mess of bad acting and amazingly youthful pretentiousness, you may find it hard to look away. Handmade and helpless, it’s nevertheless the real deal, an artful blurt of sensitivity and rage.
Or you can just call it “Blue Valentine’’ for slacker anarchists. “Bellflower’’ opens with a few scenes of Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) farting around in a Southern California nowheresville. Do they have jobs? It’s beside the point. They worship the old Mel Gibson classic “Mad Max,’’ though, and are half-playfully readying themselves for life after the Apocalypse, when they’ll lead their own gang and drive bitchin’ cars. In his spare time, Woodrow’s perfecting a homemade flamethrower.
They may as well just put up a sign reading “No Gurls Allowed,’’ except that Woodrow, a shy romantic, meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman), and the rules suddenly change. On this movie’s terms, they meet cute, going up against each other at a cricket-eating contest in a bar. On their first date, they drive to Texas for the hell of it.
The only way to keep this kind of indie whimsy from choking on itself is to treat it as if you’ve just invented both love and cinema, and Glodell, bless his grease-stained heart, does just that. The early scenes between Woodrow and the brassy Milly are disarmingly tender, taking place in a dawn light of discovery. Glodell signals that it can’t last - Woodrow’s too needy, Milly craves danger - but that just makes the initial infatuation more precious.
You’ll either fall in love with the film’s visual style or flee from it craving a shower. An inveterate tinkerer, Glodell rigged up not only his gonzo-macho props - the flamethrower, a fire-belching ’72 Buick Skylark dubbed Medusa - but the camera itself. “Bellflower’’ looks like it was shot with a shoebox: The images slip in and out of focus and seem to come at you sideways. Everything’s drenched in a firelight glow. The director hasn’t filmed his story so much as dragged various recording media through it.
It’s a consciously distressed vision, and when it works, you feel like you’re watching a movie for the very first time. It doesn’t work nearly enough, of course, but it’s the kid’s debut film, and for now Glodell is still a potterer more than a storyteller. In the back half of “Bellflower,’’ the relationship crumbles into infidelity and crackup, and the combination of psycho-vomit cinematics and inflamed emotions overwhelms the director. He loses his grip on the characters - the most dramatically interesting, a pretty, insecure user played by Rebekah Brandes, mostly sits around with a gun, and Dawson’s Aiden devolves from a genuinely anarchic sprite to a generic wacky friend.
But that’s what heartbreak looks like when you’re young enough: Your own miseries bleeding onto the world and everyone else taking a back seat. “Bellflower’’ toys with sci-fi apocalypse (which is why the Sundance and SXSW slacker boys adored it) but it’s really about the thermonuclear catastrophe of male self-pity. The scary part is that it’s unclear how self-aware Glodell is - whether he’s celebrating his meltdown or hammering it into art. Either we’ll never hear from him again or he’ll be running Hollywood in 15 years.
Written and directed by:
Starring: Glodell, Jessie Wiseman, Tyler Dawson, Rebekah Brandes
At: Kendall Square
Running time: 105 minutes
Rated: R (disturbing violence, strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive language,
some drug use, fun