Mar 4, 2008

On Frownland

Premiering amidst the hoopla surrounding the “indie movement” formerly known as mumblecore, one that after a few seasons of percolating finally burst to the cusp of the mainstream at last year’s SXSW Film Festival, Ronald Bronstein’s remarkable debut feature Frownland shared the special jury prize with Ry Russo Young’s studied but tepid Orphans, and has since acquired a small but fervent cult that is sure too grow. Homemade and as literal as its title, Frownland careens for one hundred and six grueling minutes around a man in the midst of a crisis, to put it mildly. Full of harsh cuts, minimal production values, garish lighting, explosively grainy images, bizarre, dreamy music cues and deliberate tonal abrasiveness, nothing in the film serves to directly please the viewer.

Reminscent of odd-ball mavericks as far flung as The Kuchar Brothers, Ken Jacobs, Fredrick Wiseman, Lodge Kerrigan, Lars Von Trier and of course, John Cassavetes, Bronstein’s camera penetrates its subject with painful clarity and depth, gliding around the characters with an often uncomfortable intimacy. Something deeply troubling and difficult to pin down is taking place in these peoples lives and Frownland wallows right with them in despair, grim humor and brief glimpses of solace.

Frownland rests on the shoulders of Dore Mann, who delivers a brave, searing performance as an emotionally disabled, moderately working class, Brooklynite stiff. Selling coupons door to door to scrape by, Keith Sontag (Mann) quarrels about bills with his unemployed musician roommate (Paul Grimstad, who contributed the haunting music) and desperately tries to console a hysterical female friend named Laura (Mary Wall, who married the director), a young woman whose moods seem to oscillate between catatonia and the brink of suicide. Over the course of a week or so, we witness Keith’s slow descent into mania, as he attempts and fails again and again to connect on the most basic levels with other human beings in this outer-borough purgatory, one far different from the place glimpsed in Ramin Bahrani’s recent Chop Shop, but equally unsparing.

Mann's Keith is a deeply unskilled man, nervous, grating and all too self-conscious, with oily skin and receding black hair that only accentuate the ticks, non-sequiturs and generally inane quality of his vocal patterns. He is seemingly without prospects or hopes for the future. The equally miserable milieu he inhabits never relents from heaping indignity, self-loathing and emotional solitude upon him. At one point, while trying to engage his employer in a conversation, Keith describes himself as a “troll from under the bridge”. He spastically scratches and rubs his face constantly, half smoked, unashed cigarettes dangling from his mouth. In one shockingly hilarious moment near the opening, he tries to console the distraught Laura, who ignores him and walks into a gas station food mart. While she’s gone, he pries his eyes open as wide as he can, until he begins crying, only to hold them longer, until she returns, interrupting his private masochism and causing greater discomfort.

Should we find pathos in this man’s plight, empathy for his sorrows? I don’t think the film is so sure and that is what becomes so completely unsettling about it as he stumbles toward doom, the assurances most narratives films give you that their protagonists are, at least in some small way, “heroes” go withheld here and so does our comfort level. This is a radical departure from the perspective we’re trained to take on anyone whose filmic world we inhabit.

An ultra low-fi, old school American indie, shot over the course of three years in rough hewn, academy ratio 16mm by Sean Williams and edited by the director’s hand, Frownland has a primal immediacy to it unlike anything you’ll see on American screens this year. This is perhaps the most wrenching portrait of inarticulateness and desperation I’ve ever seen. Seems like a tough sell, no? The IFC Center is giving the film a one week run starting this Friday, but they might as well put the film’s name on their mission statement – this is the type of film that gives credibility to the term “independent” in an increasingly Darwinian marketplace. It is the story of a completely unappealing, near rabid man told without compromise. Run and see for yourself. You might regret it, but you won’t forget it.