The rare art-world send-up that hits its targets with relative precision, Hellaware depicts a New York scene where the worst work attracts the most attention. In the opening minutes of this low-budget satire, former photography student Nate (Keith Poulson) gets dumped by his girlfriend for an artist well-known for painting defiled crucifixes. Later, gathered around a laptop in a Brooklyn apartment, Nate and his two best friends (Sophia Takal and Duane C. Wallace) watch a YouTube report about an upcoming blue-chip auction: A Damien Hirst equivalent has encrusted a human penis in diamonds and submerged it in a tank of formaldehyde.
Writer-director Michael M. Bilandic gets some fairly easy laughs from the inflammatory content of these hot commodities, but his film is most successful in skewering the tendency to intellectualize such appalling—and appallingly inhumane (that severed penis had to have belonged to somebody)—work. In the gallery-show scenes, the filmmaker cuts away to assorted attendees, self-seriously holding forth on the insipid work before them. The initially disdaining protagonist eventually becomes wrapped up in this world as well. Desperate to prove himself after getting dumped, Nate hits on an idea that turns out to be potentially career-making, traveling down to middle-of-nowhere Delaware to snap photos of an under-the-radar rap-rock outfit in the Insane Clown Posse mold.
This scene, too, is presented as plainly repulsive; the Young Torture Killaz’s least hateful track, an ad-nauseam refrain on the soundtrack here, is called “I’ll Cut Your Dick Off.” But Nate’s tactics of immersing himself in the culture (his words) soon become the most consistently squirm-inducing spectacle on display. As a French gallery manager (Gilles Decamps) floats the possibility of a solo show, Nate continues to justify ignoring the teenage bandmates’ concerns as necessary to preserving the integrity of his art. Young Rusty (Brent Butler) checks in at one point to make sure Nate hasn’t taken any incriminating photos, since he happens to be on parole; Nate assures him he hasn’t—though in fact he has documented, in sickening detail, the previous night’s purple-drink binge.
Even with a runtime just barely over an hour, the shock comedy of Hellaware grows a bit numbing after a while. Thankfully, though, the film stays engaging as a quick-sketch study in artist-subject ethics, and how pretentious blather might easily become a form of doublespeak, a sort of theoretical smoke screen for blatantly me-first conduct. Micro-indie mainstays Takal and Wallace are both particularly terrific as the movie’s voices of reason, the friends shifting gradually from support of Nate’s project to calmly, but mercilessly, calling him on his bullshit. Bilandic’s finale delivers further comeuppance—followed by a coronation of sorts—for the aspiring photographer, ably summing up both the absurdity and the allure of art-world success. Hellaware is not the first movie to present a portrait of the successful artist as a terrible person, and it won’t be the last, but it nonetheless manages to feel fresh on the whole—a sharp-edged comedy of subcultures in collision.