Michael M. Bilandic’s “Hellaware” is cleverly, if absurdly, titled —the portmanteau of “Hell” and “Delaware” conjuring up the fiery depths into which this film’s protagonist sinks after a fateful trip to The First State. But it also could be seen as a mashup of “hella” and “aware,” which could aptly describe the pretentious Brooklyn artsy hipsters that populate the protagonist’s milieu: highly self-conscious, self-styled individuals, whose “art” is all style and no substance. In reaction to that, “Hellaware” is a cynical, caustic, and often very funny send up of not only the current commercial art world but the entire borough of Brooklyn. In doing so, the film manages to make a very silly and stereotypical Insane Clown Posse-esque rap rock group look like the good guys.
Nate (Keith Poulson) is our protagonist, and eventual anti-hero, a struggling artist frustrated by the successes of those around him who are celebrated for their gimmicky, quasi-outsider art. He snaps when Lexie (Kate Lyn Sheil) dumps him for one of the “successful” artists, and struck by inspiration from a YouTube algorithm that puts the Young Torture Killaz track “Cut Ya Dick Off” in his line of sight, he sets off to visit and photograph the band in an attempt at ethnographic photojournalism. Clearly, the fact that he just has to drive to Delaware in order to find this exotic culture should be an indication of how ridiculous his journey is and how seriously he takes himself.
Accompanied by pal Bernadette (Sophia Takal), he finds the Torture Killaz putting on a show for themselves in their parents’ basement and quickly ingratiating himself to them, documenting the hijinks, drug use, and general boring rural activities teens in small towns get up to at night (bonfires, booze, barfing). He presents the prints of his candid point-and-shoots to Brooklyn art dealer and gallerist Olivier LaFleur (Gilles Decamps), who is instantly drawn in by the raw, authentic quality of the photos of these colorful teens. Nate is finally tasting success, and of course it goes straight to his head, his appearance gradually changing along with his attitude becoming darker, more pretentious and way more insufferable. Suffice to say that the Torture Killaz aren’t psyched about being exploited for someone else’s gain, and Nate definitely doesn’t handle it correctly. I wouldn’t want to ruin just how it plays out, as the film does end with a terrific punchline.
That punchline is representative of the overall tone of the film itself, which plays out with a giant smirk. It is a one joke film, with the kind of cynical gimmicky approach that plays best in short form, but it’s well-executed enough, with a compelling performance from Poulson that earns its slim 73 minute run time. The supporting cast, particularly Takal, do fine work in shaping out the rest of the world and providing the kind of reactions that let us know that yes, Nate is full of shit, and people know that (sometimes it’s good to be reminded that the film is in on the joke). A very funny slice of art world satire, “Hellaware” will ring true for anyone who’s encountered this kind of behavior before, and really, haven’t we all? [B]