Low-key but astutely observed drama “Bumblefuck, USA” mixes narrative and documentary elements as a young Dutch woman arrives in a heartland burg to document the lives of gay and lesbian citizens there, stirring up some intrigue on her own. Co-written with lead thesp Cat Smits, Aaron Douglas Johnston’s debut feature is at once straightforward and ambiguous; results are stealthily compelling if uncommercial. However, if the recent “Littlerock,” another ambling tale of outsiders in rural America that made an under-radar fest premiere, could gradually build steam toward theatrical distribution, there’s hope for “Bumblefuck,” too.
Alexa (Smits) is a radiant young blonde who’s traveled from Amsterdam to an unnamed Iowa town with laptop and video camera for the summer. Hoping to interview locals about being gay in this environment, she’s been led to this precise place because her gay friend Matthew committed suicide in the area not long ago. Why or how well they knew each other is left a mystery; so is Alexa’s own sexual orientation, perhaps even to herself.
Her open manner frequently seems flirtatious, and she’s quick to ask others very personal questions, yet reveals almost nothing of herself. Without seeming mean-spirited, she’s often thoughtless and self-absorbed, perhaps unconsciously using her looks to get away with an obliviousness toward the expectations she raises in others. Thus, she unwittingly toys with the affections of housemate/landlord Lucas (John Watkins), not grasping that he’s lonely and fragile enough to place great importance on her casual overtures of friendship.
After getting drunk at a local disco, she wakes up next morning in the bed of Jennifer (Heidi M. Sallows), a tattooed latte slinger/visual artist clearly attracted to this newcomer, but justifiably wary that Alexa might be a straight girl out for a few transgressive thrills. Arguably confirming that impression, Alexa also has a one-night-stand with a cemetary groundskeeper (Ryan Gourley).
Meanwhile, Alexa videotapes gays in the area, some of whom knew Matthew. These subjects tell their own stories in such moving, utterly unaffected ways, viewers will wonder whether they’re staged or not. (In fact, Smits indeed interviewed real locals, named in the end credits; pic is dedicated to the director’s cousin Matthew Lee Johnston, who committed suicide shortly after coming out at age 25.) Their individual tales of struggles with sexual identity trace familiar arcs of denial, guilt and eventual coming-to-terms. Still, though neither fictive or docu figures specifically blame their milieu for any unhappiness, title “Bumblefuck” seems unnecessarily off-putting.
Pic ends on a note of reconciliation and tentative maturity that, like nearly everything else here, avoids conventional dramatic engineering for a more naturalistic if less assertive flow. That tact extends to all aspects of the well-handled production package.