“It’s pretty bleak out there,” Nate (Keith Poulson) tells an old art professor in the early going of “Hellaware” and he’s not referring to the recent exhibit he attended where the “pastels were infused with cow blood.” Instead, he’s referring to his job prospects, a rather unsexy concern in his neck of the woods where his contemporaries are scoring major paydays from sculptures and portraits that’s shock value far exceeds its artistic merit. In fact, it’s when Nate is looking up a piece involving severed penises that’s said to be worth $25 million that he stumbles upon his muse, the Young Torture Killaz, a group of heavily-made up miscreants from Delaware resembling the Insane Klown Posse who originate such feel-good earworms as “I’ll Cut Yo Dick Off” and inspire a sense of something real for the young photographer.
One suspects that writer/director Michael M. Bilandic has been through all this himself, not just grappling on a psychological level to mix commercial potency with artistic credibility, but the physical act of descending down to the basement of a suburban home to watch a band with their four fans or peruse a gallery full of insipid paintings of defaced crucifixes while others marvel at them. That authenticity has the contradictory effect of giving the satire a knowing edge while making the parade of awful art world personalities who pass through “Hellaware” tolerable enough to be funny rather than unbearable.
It also helps to have the boyish Poulson as the lead. Having previously battled apathy in Bob Byington’s “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” Poulson doesn’t weigh down Nate as some angsty mess but instead ably handles the transformation from a dismayed outsider to the type of artiste he’s come to loathe in one of the rare places in “Hellaware” where subtlety is a virtue. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams has less room to work, almost literally in a physical sense because the film embraces an in-your-face aesthetic and lack of polish befitting of its subject, and it’s mildly disappointing that there’s a less distinctive touch on display here than in Williams’ previous high watermarks in “The Color Wheel” and “Frownland.” Then again, such a critique makes me ripe for the kind of parody that Bilandic is dishing out in “Hellaware.” (Not to mention that the work is convincing enough to be mistaken for the real thing.)
Although the film follows a familiar overall arc, its arrival at some unexpected places, including an abrupt conclusion, makes it more than the collection of easy potshots at stuffy gallery owners and unworldly hipsters it easily could’ve been. Sophia Takal is a particular beneficiary as Bernadette, Nate’s longtime confidant who he begins to see in a different light, and the Young Torture Killaz, led by Brent Butler’s Rusty, fulfill their anarchic promise in a strangely poignant way. At a slim 72-minute running time, “Hellaware” would be considered modest if it weren’t for all the loud eccentrics populating it, but Bilandic doesn’t let the wild streak of the character overwhelm the story at hand. As Nate learns, it’s one thing to create something attention grabbing, but quite another to say something. “Hellaware” does both.