Frownland, written and directed by Ronald Bronstein, is a no-budget labor of love that chronicles the life of a young man who is unable to communicate. He speaks in stops and starts, often beginning a conversation with the dial at 10 and relaying a complex metaphor that only he is aware of. In a bit of irony the helps set the stage this young man works as a door-to-door salesman of coupon booklets, forcing his interaction with dozens of strangers a day.
The film played for a single week at IFC Center and I caught the first show on the first day. I had been looking forward to Bronstein’s debut since reading about him in a variety of publications, normally in conjunction with the mumblecore movement, with Film Comment singing his praises I thought that I should give it a shot. I’ll not be comparing Frownland with any other mumblecore films because I haven’t seen any of them, but perhaps I will find time to watch a bunch of movies about twenty-year-olds in relationships.
What I liked: While evoking the name Cassavettes is not something I do with abandon, and the description doesn’t have a glove-tight fit, the film did leave me with a similar feeling to that of Cassavettes’ films (Opening Night in particular). I couldn’t stop thinking about the film for days, it’s character’s and their tics, their behaviors. The film is more character study than anything and eschews any sense of narrative for it’s main character Keith, played with creative reckless abandon by Dore Mann, who stammers and contorts his way through a series of social situations with people who seem to hate him. The narrative push comes from the tension we feel as Keith attempts to navigate the streets of New York and it’s denizens. Those secondary characters also have their moments in the spotlight, which serves to illuminate why the world is that much more difficult for Keith. I liked this element, the feeling of exploring all the tributaries on your way down the river, it completes your view of the river as a whole.
The grainy use of 16mm in lowlight situations and the cramped quarters of the apartments added to the tone of the film. This is not an easy film to watch and would be difficult, near impossible, for me to recommend it to someone who didn’t frequent art-house films. The film was like being washed over by a wave of frustration and fear and it was a great experience.
This is what I love about independent (some would describe this as underground film) film, the ability to see a section of people, and how they live, that isn’t represented by Hollywood or television. I think that the future of cinema involves local stories about people like this, people who struggle to carve out an existence in a society that would rather ignore them. I hope to make movies like this.
What I didn’t like: This is another case of being unable to articulate what keeps the film from reaching the 5 star threshold. The best I can do is to say that it failed to deliver anything more than the admiration that I indicated in the earlier paragraphs. A film that reaches 5 stars should push past the film’s trappings and touch me emotionally or intellectually and Frownland fell just short of that, though Bronstien should be applauded for his efforts and someone should give him a fist-full of money to make another film.