I've always been really iffy on found footage movies. I see the value in the genre and have even gotten into a few of them, but they're also the ones I'm quickest to turn off if they aren't doing it for me. Hell, I've been sent several of these to review over the years and have only written about a select few. It's easy to get lost in the gimmick or use it as a crutch to forgive heavy flaws in filmmaking. That's why when one comes along that pleases me, that's able to construct a solid narrative with worthwhile performances, that's a film I feel the need to champion. If a film happens to fall into the genre and use it to its advantage, as opposed to being an exercise in the genre that happens to come out as a film, it can get me on board. With this film, Strawberry Flavored Plastic, I'm not even sure if found footage is the right title to give it. It's a faux documentary, but it's stated that the film would never get finished, unless the lead character somehow released it, so it's like we “found” the footage...it works. This first feature film from director Colin Bemis (credited as Leon Delilah at first) is a surprisingly well-made and acted serial killer thriller put together on a miniscule budget ($13,800, I believe), while not showing any of these limitations.
SFP sets itself up as a documentary being put together by Errol (Nicholas Urda) and Ellis (Andres Montejo), two desperate filmmakers trying to make their mark and find the subject that will set their careers ablaze. They find a guy named Noel Rose (Aidan Bristow), who claims to be a recently released felon, serving a sentence for a double murder of passion. After starting the project and finding out that Noel's story was fabricated, they discover they are working with an active and as of yet uncaught serial killer. They delve into the psyche of what appears to be a cold monster, but discover a charming and intelligent man with a dark past who may be trying to get better. They get drawn in, to the point of being complicit in murder while also being personally tied to the story and their main character, blurring the lines of story-teller and subject. The story slowly escalates as they discover the breadth of his crimes and get personally entangled in the story themselves, leaving everyone unsure of how the film will end.
The guise of being a documentary really works in the film's favor and is one of the few things that can connect me with these types of films from a personal standpoint. I get the filmmaking drive and need to capture a story, despite how messed up or dangerous the situation may be, as opposed to someone just keeping cameras on past any logical point or even filming in the first place. That's why movies like The Blair Witch Project, Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, or more recently Creep 2, tend to work for me. While this film has a few elements of those, it's on the whole a different beast. Instead of going for a more campy or supernatural element to make it stick (though this does have some humorous moments), it takes more of a serious tone. It actually has very few moments of violence or action, instead focusing more on the inner workings of the killer. It's even only about that up to a certain point, because it seems just as focused on the process of making a documentary, of becoming involved with the story you're capturing and influencing it, having the filmmaker become a cog in the machine of the story (the main documentarian ain't called Errol for nothing). As these two filmmakers become knowingly involved in the murders of multiple people, they're conflicted over what is perhaps morally right versus the promise of recognition and making it, naively thinking they will make the most compelling doc ever and then just get to walk away and continue their lives and careers.
Something else that puts this film a point above the rest is that is actually looks great. Sure, there are a few dingier handheld camera shots with their shaky and amateur unease, but these are reserved more for the few brutal shots of violence and the POV of the killer. The rest is crisp and clean, showing an actual eye for directing and cinematography from Bemis, that he's able to easily transition to presenting these two misguided filmmakers as having some talent. Even the way the doc is presented, as mostly talking heads style scenes in front of a bookcase, the filmmakers giving thoughts in front of a computer, or conversations with the subject over Skype, shows that while they have the idea and a little talent, their product would just be boring or trying. The only real life or action comes from the things Noel films himself, amateurish and blunt, but knowing how to give the audience a show. This makes their relationship almost necessary and validates them becoming something close to true friends. Noel has the story and the fire, being willing to give these guys the tools to reach their dreams. Errol and Ellis have the means and the hunger, being able to shape his world into a narrative and being willing to follow the story to the end. They create this weird symbiotic dependency that comes across as real and even heartfelt at times.
I think the greatest thing about this film is the lead performance from Aidan Bristow as Noel. This guy gives a hell of a performance, making Noel charismatic and empathetic, while never straying too far from being an obviously unbalanced monster. At first his talent in this film seems almost unfair, like it was even a detriment to the other actors around him, easily pointing out their shortcomings by comparison. The more I thought about it, the more it works for the characters and their dynamic, whether intentional or not. A lot of the dialogue feels overwritten and stilted at times and I must admit the film drags whenever Bristow isn't onscreen. But it makes sense in the realm of the story, with Noel being the charismatic evil that will play up his philosophies and thoughts to bring meaning to his madness and give everyone a show. Errol is the wannabe auteur, trying to talk up his work and find his own meaning, believing that he deserves to be a filmmaker. His dialogue is stilted because he is stilted, trying to convince the audience and himself that this situation is okay and that he knows what he's doing, when he's obviously in over his head and doesn't have a clue. Ellis is more comfortable being behind the camera, but has a “go with the flow” attitude that allows him to come off as more natural in front of the camera too, just without much substance. He's able to see this as just a project and keep Noel at a distance, as a subject, while Errol is the one that gets too involved and too invested in Noel as a person.
The film is at its best when it plays with and shows these dynamics. There are comedic scenes like when one asks the other if they need to explain something personal or ubiquitous to the audience, as if them talking about the documentary is just as important as actually making the thing. Or there are more serious moments where the idea of Noel seeking therapy and trying to get better shows up, and the film toys with the idea of redemption for the psychopath. Could the promise of something like family or a normal life change our path and let us escape our past and our decisions, or are we doomed to repeat and continue our most ingrained traumas? Despite all these musings, the movie is not without its flaws and is far from perfect. I do wish the character of Lana (Bianca Soto), Errol's wife, was given more to do. I enjoyed her performance, but she was more sidelined, and the film could have used a more grounded character to center some of the more ridiculous aspects of it. Whether she was on board and just as passionate about the process as Errol or was outright against it and served as a roadblock to the escalating situation, I think it would have served the movie better than the more plot point catalyst role her character ends up with. The film also has a bit of a problem in tone, being too self-serious at times and overly lighthearted in others almost interchangeably, without being able to find that sweet middle ground it needed. There are a few things that don't make logistic sense and a few “serial killer that's never been caught” things that bothered me in the moment (security cameras! Finger prints, bro!), but I was able to get lost in the characters and the tension unfolding enough to where it didn't end up mattering too much.
I really hope this film does well, because I would love to see what Bemis could do next with a solid win and more of a budget under his belt. Strawberry Flavored Plastic will be released exclusively on Amazon on January 23rd and I highly recommend you check it out. It's well shot, wonderfully acted (at least the lead role), carries some scare and tension, and manages to feel like something fresh, even without a wholly original premise in a genre that can become tiresome.
7 out of 10 Sacks of Severed Horse Dicks