Bitter young photographic artist Nate (Keith Poulson) is fed up with the “incestuous, New York, socialite shit” being produced and sold by his successful peers. His girlfriend, an art groupie who mispronounces the word “lethargy,” has just left him for the painter Jordan (Chuck McCarthy), a tortured bro who compensates for his complete lack of artistic talent with a full tank of chutzpah. Inspired by a cocaine-fueled YouTube search, Nate ventures out of the safe haven of the Manhattan art world into the “geography of nowhere” to “immerse himself in another’s culture.” Specifically, he and Bernadette (Sophia Takal), his friend with benefits, drive out to rural Delaware to see a concert put on by the rap-rock band the Young Torture Killaz, an Insane Clown Posse knockoff.
Part of Hellaware’s success is due to the authenticity of these two worlds that are subtly parodied by writer-director Michael M. Bilandic. The YouTube video that leads Nate to YTK is for their song “I’ll Cut Yo Dick Off,” which subconsciously speaks to Nate’s sense of sexual inadequacy and professional castration. But it also gives him an idea for a new project. Having recognized the truth of his social castration, Nate seeks to surmount it by exploiting the band for his art in hopes of achieving professional success. He and Bernadette are the sole attendees of the show, performed in the basement of the lead singer’s parent’s house, so the band invites them to their after-party at the “ghetto spot” (the woods behind the house) to open up to their new fans. Modestly comparing his photos of the band to the ethnographic work of Diane Arbus, Nate’s project and ego fly out of control as he begins to appropriate his unsuspecting primitive subjects for the greater glory of art.
Bilandic deftly captures the arrogance and despair of New York artists in their efforts to succeed in a decadent world that forces them to produce inherently epigonic work. Nate accidentally came across YTK while watching an online news program about a new work by a famous artist consisting of severed male genitalia swimming in formaldehyde, which is to be sold at an auction for over $25 million. This is a reference to Damien Hirst and his infamous piece “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” where it’s a shark that’s preserved in formaldehyde. The satire here is pitch-perfect for being so literal. Olivier LaFleur (Gilles DeCamps), the gallery owner who premieres Nate’s YTK photos in his brand new Bushwick space, tells him that he should commit a crime and go to jail if he wants to become an authentic artist. LaFleur cites a European novelist-photographer who started out as an orphaned thief and gigolo as a paragon of contemporary artists, to whom Nate should naturally aspire. This droll reference to Jean Genet captures how transgression has become one of the art world’s greatest clichés, a cheap substitute for insight and thoughtful analysis. Having finally won a solo show, Nate is shown to be as much of a fraud as the artists he initially decried. Elevated by LaFleur and his former art-school professor, who praises his work’s “dialectic,” Nate abandons his friends and betrays YTK, thereby signaling his emergence as a true artist.
Hellaware does equally well depicting America’s Juggalo subculture. In addition to “I’ll Cut Yo Dick Off,” YTK’s other radio-friendly tune is “Niggaz Str8 Die.” Bilandic links the casual racism and homophobia embedded in the community to the landscape and culture that gives birth to phenomena like YTK. The scenes in backwoods Delaware exude a palpable sense of dread that foreshadows the wry irony of the film’s climax, when YTK crashes the New York art world in a visceral embodiment of the return of the rural repressed. Bilandic understands conservative America’s hatred of effeminate urban elites, as exemplified by the psychological violence that underlies YTK’s encounters with Nate and Bernadette, where the group shows their disdain for the pretentious New Yorkers by fondling Bernadette’s oversized glasses and impugning Nate’s heterosexuality. When a Russian art collector compares the landscape and people in Nate’s photographs to Chechnya, Nate responds, “It did feel like being in a war zone.” Bilandic’s complex satire reaches its apotheosis in the final scene, where he asks what makes certain works of contemporary art so much more profitable than others. His response is bitterly sardonic and utterly convincing.