Film Review: Frank & Cindy (★★★)

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LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL: I’m never one to mind a self-indulgent film. A personal touch usually resonates with me more than something written as an assignment. However, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more self-indulgent film this year than Frank and Cindy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it may be for some, and it toes that fine line of just how indulgent you can be.

Writer and director G.J. Echternkamp makes himself the protagonist, victim and redemption of his alcoholic parents story. Make that his mother, Cindy, and his step-father, Frank Garcia, of the one-hit wonder band OXO in the 1980s with Whirly Girl. Yes, ‘the’ Frank Garcia. That fading light of fame is a key theme of what’s to come.

Johnny Simmons stars as G.J. when he was in his late teens just before he heads off to film school. In Echternkamp’s own words, he’s a womanizing genius. But for those who haven’t seen Simmons since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the Whiplash short, he’s surprisingly convincing, shedding that laidback and anxious (respectively) personality that defined his other roles and revealing his potential as a leading man. Frankly, he’s the only reason his character works and the film should be grateful.

Home for the summer before college time, G.J. trips over girls he sleeps with while frequently interrupted by Frank’s drunken stumbles into his room, played by a bumbling Oliver Platt. Upon discovering that his sobering mom, played by Rene Russo, and Frank have spent the inheritance money he planned to use more resourcefully, he begins a documentary on their lives to prove they can’t keep their promises.

It’s a real feature length documentary, and one that won Echternkamp awards at the Raindance Film Festival and Seattle True Independent Film Festival in 2007. You wonder why he felt so compelled to produce a ‘making of’ piece, which presumably only adds his own arc to the story. That’s not to say it’s unwelcome. At the very least, Oliver Platt and Rene Russo offer career best worthy performances.

If we thought Russo was Oscar worthy with Nightcrawler, she blows that performance out of the water with her Courtney Love-esque Cindy. She’s tattered, talkative, and trying to make up for the mistakes of her past, dealing with some guilt larger than others. It’s wonderful to see a vulnerable character like that who’s way past her prime actually trying her hand at redemption, for the most part anyway.

However, I can’t hold Russo accountable for the way Oliver Platt completely steals the movie from her in the last half hour. As we studied in Birdman, the other side of feeling significant to pop culture is the depressing reality that you’re not, and Platt digs deep into that darkness inside that we know he’s fully capable of reaching but barely permitted in the bigger budget films he frequently signs onto. Here’s hoping the film gets on awards radars because they could both be strong contenders.

Frank and Cindy may be a self-indulgent film. Marc Maron of all people drops in as G.J.’s cool but irresponsible dad. But this isn’t self-congratulatory. This is a soul-bearing piece, Echternkamp is exorcising some demons. The character arc of realizing that G.J. is just as bad as his parents is typical, but necessary and honest and void of sentiment. There’s an element of catharsis to it that’s very refreshing and involving.

It does have a tendency to allow its photography to get too dark and shaky without reason and that small scale may shrink its chances at being embraced. It has inherent structural problems as the drama can only go so far with a lack of tragedy, and it’s too meta for its own good at points with Frank and Cindy analyzing themselves as characters in the documentary. That’s not to sell short its brilliant wit which balances that light and dark magnificently. Despite its vital flaws, it’s an arresting film with a great soundtrack. Frank and Cindy is a sincere vanity piece that deserves momentum this awards season.