For an actor, part of the art of embodying a morally questionable character is to first seek a point of empathy rather than glaring signs of weakness — to make a bid to understand character flaws rather than hastily inflate them. This is what separates nuanced portraits of compromised humanity from overstated villainy, or, put more simply, good acting from hackery. That’s not a lesson on display in Keith Poulson’s central performance in Michael M. Bilandic’s noxious Hellaware. Instead, Poulson’s performance appears to have been conceived with the intent of pumping the greatest degree of over-privilege, pretension and ignorance into every moment. Sure, in the most rudimentary sense the film is a comedy, a genre that often makes room for overstatement and even caricature — but the best comedy performances find human warmth in sheer lunacy. Poulson’s Nate, meanwhile — a mumbling Brooklyn photographer who has that way of wearing a beanie that makes it look like he’s piled leaves on top of his head — merely functions as the walking emblem of lethal hipsterism, the kind of dude you see skulking around American Apparel one minute and half-heartedly denouncing third-world-labor exploitation the next.
In this case, Nate’s primary arena for finger-wagging is the community of peers attempting to circumnavigate the same art world he’s preoccupied by. Losing his girlfriend in the film’s second scene to an angsty 20-something doodler (a breakup that doubles as the film’s unwise squandering of its most gifted performer, Kate Lyn Sheil), Nate recognizes he’s in a choice position to channel his jealousy and frustration into bankable art. So he pulls a Diane Arbus and ships off to Delaware for a night of frontline research on a clique of juvenile delinquents who’ve banded together as Young Torture Killaz, an Insane Clown Posse counterfeit act discovered by Nate in a YouTube sidebar. (If you miss this plot foundation, not to worry: The basic details of the scenario are recapped every other scene in the first half of the movie each time Nate brags of his art project to a new acquaintance, as if ellipses were never an option.)
In quick time, it becomes painfully apparent that the film has little more on its mind than sneering at the rampant appropriation, arrogant entitlement and pseudo-intellectualism of the high-art bubble. While aiming to stoke interest in his endeavor — by using a classic bait-and-switch wherein he feigns interest in the Killaz, procures Big Apple-grade Purple Drank for them, and lies about spreading word-of-mouth buzz, all while snapping superficially gritty photos of the kids boozing and vomiting — Nate works his way through an assembly line of scenesters, each one more punchable than the last. A coolly cerebral art professor; a bottom-line gallerist and his apathetic minimum-wage assistant; hell, why not a party-hearty rich kid too — there are few two-dimensional New Yorker clichés Bilandic isn’t willing to put a body and a face to, so long as he can flesh them out with quips of predictably empty art analysis and/or a well-placed quirk (for instance, one guy’s flip-up shades, which obviously have a deeper meaning for him, if not for us). In this world, connections, no matter how tenuous, are currency, and Bilandic’s clearly disgusted by it.
In quick time, it becomes painfully apparent that the film has little more on its mind than sneering at the rampant appropriation, arrogant entitlement and pseudo-intellectualism of the high-art bubble.
If the best thing to come of Hellaware is a heightened receptiveness on the part of the audience to dubious cinematic ethnography and its strident claims of “verisimilitude,” one could perhaps call that a cultural victory. Problem is, the film has none of the sympathy for the Other that this reflexive contempt towards its own local culture might suggest. The Killaz are presented as standard freaks, their off-putting attire and adoption of deeply offensive vernacular foregrounded rather than their camaraderie and vulnerability. When Nate takes the train over to their low-rent abode for an evening of foul play, the group, at first insistent upon taking it easy in lieu of their day jobs, is quickly reduced to a pack of writhing animals, the handheld camera sparing no opportunity for a grotesque close-up. Later, when Nate goes behind their back in deciding to showcase incriminating photography in his upcoming exhibit, Bilandic doesn’t pass up the chance to treat the Killaz’ retribution with jokey revenge-thriller motifs, including an out-of-nowhere brooding score and a backwards dolly shot of the crew in flying-V formation, stalking their unsuspecting prey.
This year, New York-based filmmaker Scott Cummings made an ethnographic film on a subculture much like the one Nate exploits called Buffalo Juggalo, the production history of which no doubt echoes, at least vaguely, the one fictionalized in Hellaware. It seems unlikely that the Brooklynite Bilandic would not be aware of this film by now, and in this light his choice of subject matter comes across as peculiarly serendipitous. That Cummings’s film was made after Bilandic’s mostly disqualifies any suspicion that Hellaware’s indictment of the sins of poorly conceived ethnographic cinema could have spawned from the same well of contemptuous jealousy and competitiveness fueling Nate. Still, it’s still tempting to compare and contrast the two films, even if their separate artistic aims can’t really be reconciled. Doing so, there’s one striking difference that stands out above others: Buffalo Juggalo reveals a productive case of artist-subject collaboration, while this long cheap joke springs only from the glib mind of its creator.