If you pay attention to the flood of little movies that spew forth from smaller distributors every year, sifting through the shameless exploitation, self-impressed indies, and genre rehashes, every now and then you spot something new. Not just newly released, but actually new, something that feels like a page is turning somewhere, whether generationally or artistically or both—take Bellflower (Oscilloscope Laboratories Blu-ray and DVD) and Putty Hill (Cinema Guild DVD).
With its focus on aimless urban twentysomethings, Bellflower owes something to the so-called mumblecore school, although it brings to mind Tony Scott (West Coast, garish, violent) more than mumblecore's secret avatar, Woody Allen (East Coast, talky, neurotic). Indeed, it's hard to imagine a mumblecore protagonist building a flamethrower. That's what new-to-Southern California Woodrow (writer/director Evan Glodell) is up to, though, along with bro-from-back-home Aiden (Tyler Dawson). Thanks to the notion that the world is falling apart, a shared fixation with The Road Warrior, and seemingly little else to do, they have plenty of time to tinker and fantasize about ruling the post-apocalyptic wastes. When Woodrow meets Milly (Jesse Wiseman)—while competing in a live-cricket-eating contest in a dive-y bar—their fall into folie a deux sidelines Woodrow's bromance with Aiden. Aiden occupies himself by building the ultimate road-warrior vehicle—a flame-belching street rod—while Woodrow's relationship with Milly takes some unfortunate real-world turns. Bellflower builds to a combustible situation and does not disappoint in explosiveness.
Made by a crew of neophyte filmmakers on a tiny budget—much of which purportedly went into building the car—Bellflower bears few of the hallmarks of the hand-rolled project. While at least one online wag has dismissed Joel Hodge's cinematography as mere Hipstamatic for the screen, the saturated colors and distressed filtering enliven the sunbaked side streets and crappy apartments. (The editing, credited to four people including Glodell and Hodge, is also unusually sharp.) And while it might be tempting for some viewers to find these "dude"-spouting, permanently underemployed characters faintly ridiculous, there's no more self-consciousness in these performances than there is in the characters themselves. The stakes here, as over-the-top as they may seem, play themselves out in a way that the film earns. Most of all, in watching Bellflower it feels like you're watching a new type of character making its way to the screen, emissaries from a generation with new priorities and a new way of relating to the world, even if they end up getting caught in some of the same old gears. It's a heady experience.
Writer/director Matthew Porterfield's Putty Hill offers an altogether more subtle vision, but one with an even fresher feel. As the story behind the project goes, it was devised as a last-minute save for a more ambitious film about teenage metalheads called Metal Gods. Faced with a last-minute shortage of funds, Porterfield convened much of the same (almost wholly amateur) cast in the locations already scouted around his hometown of Baltimore and asked the cast members to improvise, more or less as themselves, their response to a fictional tragedy: the overdose death of a young man named Cory. Asking questions in voiceover, a la documentary talking-head interviews, Porterfield gets them talking about themselves, their lives, and Cory. (The closest antecedent that comes to mind is Floyd Mutrux's sui generis 1971 cult fave Dusty and Sweets McGee.) What emerges is a portrait of a community—not in the large-scale, comprehensive sense favored by, say, John Sayles, but a more intimate view. And since they are nonprofessionals more or less pretending to be characters somewhat like themselves, rather than actors playing entirely invented roles, the cast members are remarkably vivid as they struggle in the moment with ties broken by death and sustained sometimes in spite of those involved.
Those familiar with Baltimore only from its depiction on shows such as The Wire or Homicide may find Porterfield's rendition of the city (or, more accurately, its northeastern suburbs) surprising. Rather than passing rowhouses and trash-strewn alleys, teenage girls trudge through a deeply wooded park that butts up against backyards and modest ranchers and bungalows. But even those prosaic backyards are surprising in this context—glowing green in cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier's lens, slightly overgrown, divided by chain-link fences and dotted with the utilitarian backs of houses. Their utter ordinariness is a novelty onscreen. It's what's inside those houses, however, and how Porterfield observes it, that sets Putty Hill apart.
The setting and the characters are the building blocks here; there is almost no plot in Putty Hill. It is, instead, Porterfield's patient observation of these people in this place in this situation that animates his conceit, from the way Saulnier's camera lingers on a rosy dawn tinting the off-white wall of a grimy bedroom to the way a memorial service held at a dingy tavern manifests all sorts of emotions in all sorts of atypical ways, from unspoken rapprochements to ear-splitting, heart-rending karaoke. It's this watchfulness, this ability to capture something like actual life as ordinary people live it, in all its untidiness and beauty, that makes Putty Hill feel alive in a way few films do anymore.