[Review] Strawberry Flavored Plastic

The town of Peekskill, New York had seven unsolved murders in 2016, a lonely and stark text tells us at the beginning of Colin Bemis’ debut feature, Strawberry Flavored Plastic. Stark, black and white images from security cameras centered around an empty parking lot eventually center on a lone car, its headlights on. Behind it come the sounds of screaming and someone hacking away at a victim.

The killer, dressed in Dexter-lite gear, the front stained with blood, gets in the car. He talks directly to the camera mounted on his car’s dashboard about his car and what it means to him before he drives away, leaving the dead body to be found later.

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Meet Noel (Aidan Bristow). He’s incredibly good-looking and charming. His ice blue eyes welcome you in, even as he waxes poetically about the art of murder. Somehow he tries to equate the moral reevaluations of the past—women’s rights, gay rights, etc.—to the moral conundrum of murder. “I’m change,” he says to an unseen interviewer. But not all change is good, is it?

Writer/director Colin Bemis mixes mockumentaries with found footage to create an interesting examination of our own culpability in reveling in murders. In the film, Noel is the topic of a documentary by two filmmakers named Errol (Nicholas Urda) and Ellis (Andres Montejo), who believe they are documenting a man who was recently released from Sing Sing, after serving nine years of a sixteen year term for a crime of passion double homicide. But none of that is true. Noel was never in prison. Instead, he might be a serial killer who’s managed to get away with murder for who knows how long.

Instead of turning him in and doing the, you know, right thing, the pair set cameras around his car and give him a body-mount camera and all the memory cards he needs. The want the “full Noel experience.” And that’s just what they get…much to their burgeoning chagrin.

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Strawberry Flavored Plastic is a fascinating movie that seems more interested in examining the thin line between a murderer and the people who try to profit off them than reveling in blood and guts (though it still has that). In some ways, this is the perfect time for this type of film. Streaming services are littered with true crime documentaries that sometimes show the lurid details of the crime. A lot of the time, their intent is to shock. To titillate under the guise of a history lesson. And you know the thought had to come to some of those filmmakers, who are documenting the past: “what if I could follow a Ted Bundy or Charles Manson in the making?”

At first, Errol and Ellis don’t believe that Noel is a killer. But as the evidence starts to build, the narrative flips. You see, Noel wants to stop what he calls the “unscratchable itch.” He wants to give up his violent ways because his ex is back in the picture and he finds out he has a daughter. His rehabilitation doesn’t necessarily make a good story, though, and as the narrative progresses Errol and Ellis seem almost gleefully interested in pushing his buttons and capturing his relapses. They go through mental gymnastics, trying to rationalize the fact they are filming murders. They even compare it to filming war. But they struggle to find their narrative because the man its centered on doesn’t want to play by their rules.

On a technical side, Bemis and crew do some interesting things with the found footage genre—a genre I’m historically not a fan of. An early scene showcases an incredibly disturbing home invasion where Noel stands over a sleeping couple and eenie-meenie’s their lives. But a standout sequence involves two different timelines that builds tension as Errol and Ellis realize that Noel is in the house with them as they watch film taken moments before they began watching.

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My biggest problems with Strawberry Flavored Plastic come in two flavors. The first is the dialogue feels a bit stilted in spots; academic in prose but lines like “…it’d link me to an unalterable past as I push forward ceaselessly to an unavoidably indeterminate future” don’t necessarily roll off the tongue. The other issue is one of pacing. At 107 minutes, the second act tends to drag a bit. A little bit of tightening here, a couple scenes trimmed or cut there and Strawberry Flavored Plastic would be a breezy little thriller.

But the strength of the filmmaking and the acting on display really sells it. Aidan Bristow, in particular, is fantastic and really makes you want to almost cheer for Noel. There’s even a goofy pseudo dance number that really enamored me with the character and the actor. This is a great debut feature and I look forward to seeing what Colin Bemis does next.