LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL 2014: Sometimes there are films you walk in to that appear to be one thing but then evolve into something totally unexpected, often for the worse but occasionally for the better. Thank goodness the latter case prevailed in Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, a black comedy that gives you plenty of room to break into laughter, and then chides you for doing so by film’s end. Frank’s self-awareness might seem pretentious and narcissistic to some, but I found it rather refreshing. Here is a movie that knows how malleable audiences are when it comes to character identification and tone, and gloriously turns our own ignorance and suspension of disbelief against us. Abrahamson knows we are willing to forgive a protagonist no matter how awful they are, as well our ability to normalize bizarre behavior when in reality we’d rightfully stand our ground in disapproval and call for help. Also, not since The Social Network has a movie so expertly dealt with the dangers of using social media as a tool for instant notoriety and fame, the expense of the soul often greater than the value of celebrity. To top it off, Abrahamson goes down territory that unintentionally hits closer to recent tragedies than anyone could have predicted – it shows how fundamentally damaging our celebrity-driven culture can be on the mentally ill.
The film begins with your typically idealistic, possibly virginal young male protagonist who is down on his luck because he isn’t fulfilling his dream. In this case, wannabe rock star Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) wants nothing more than to write and perform his own music (which sucks), and become a social media fixation for all of eternity because of it. Before he can go on Britain’s Got Talent and get a reality check from voice-of-reason Simon Cowell, Lady Luck regrettably comes to Jon’s aid. During a stroll along the beach, Jon accidentally lands himself a gig when genre-indefinable band “Soronprfbs” (not a typo, I promise!) recruits him to play keyboard following their former keyboardist’s suicide attempt. Jon, who witnesses the suicide attempt and foolishly thinks nothing of it, merrily agrees to perform alongside the eccentric band. What Jon doesn’t realize – and perhaps the audience doesn’t as well until it really begins to sink in – is that this band isn’t your traditional 1960s/1970s rock band who have talent but can’t get it together because of drugs, sex and Vietnam. No, Soronprfbs’ total incompetence as a band is due to their respective severe mental conditions, which Jon ignorantly views as cute, inspiring cases of arrested development that he can exploit for career purposes.
No matter how many times the band members — led by a man named Frank (Michael Fassbender) who wears a giant paper mache head over his face – prove that their insanity and lack of organization is a recipe for serious calamity if ever witnessed by a live audience, Jon refuses to give up and return to his desk job. Going so far as to tap into his inheritance money left by his late grandfather, Jon financially supports Soronprfbs for eleven months during which they dwell in a forest cabin and accomplish absolutely nothing. Jon believes his music potential could be unlocked the more time he spends with the fascinating Frank, but really he’s just delaying the inevitable depression that comes from learning you aren’t right for a certain career path. Unfortunately, band leader Frank, the always hostile and violence-prone Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the deeply disturbed Don (Scoot McNairy), moody drummer Nana (Carla Azar) and distrustful guitarist Baraque (Francois Civil) all somehow fall under Jon’s spell of enthusiastic commitment to a dead end road. After securing a major gig at SXSW, Jon is able to use the band’s popularity on social media to convince Frank and company to accept the venue offer since they’ll be automatically idolized no matter what. Fear of rejection and loss of identity play a major role in the latter part of the film, refreshingly upending the cliché ways in which problems are often solved in indie films of this ilk.
Lenny Abrahamson’s intimate direction alongside Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s truly original script make for one of the more unique, deeply moving comedies in recent memory. There’s a lot to laugh at in the film, but there’s always a price for such laughter, and by the end you might find yourself repulsed by how you reacted to a prior scene. This is what great, critical cinema does – it destabilizes common tropes and problematic ideologies by first working from within its walls. The more Frank unravels, the more it reveals itself as an attack against the social pressures that celebrity culture places upon us. When unable to cope with these pressures, the damage can range from ego bruising, to economic ruin, to violence. Now just imagine how the mentally ill would react when they find out they can’t live up to the expectations placed on them by the thousands upon thousands of YouTube users who “liked” their rehearsal videos. This fallout is exactly what Frank deals with, never sugarcoating nor conveniently forgiving those who are at fault.
Domhnall Gleeson is marvelous as the “nice guy” who gets in way over his head at the expense of those less mentally stable than he is, as is the entire cast that makes up the fictitious Soronprfbs band. Gyllenhaal has never been more frightening; her Clara is aggressive beyond measurement but hides real sadness beneath her constant flashes of disgust. Michael Fassbender is truly astonishing as Frank, giving us a performance so reliant on voice and physicality that you wonder where this playful side of Fassbender has been all this time. In sum Frank, is a challenging film that will force you to question your long-held beliefs regarding contemporary culture, mental illness, technology, and even the current state of cinema. Frank is a thinking man’s film that poses as an innocuous comedy, but just like Frank’s paper mache head, it only takes lifting the mask to see the hard truth beneath the façade. I strongly suggest you watch the film and think long and hard about its themes and process before making a snap judgment.
Film4’s Frank is currently among the “Summer Showcase” at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. The film is expected to be released by Magnolia Pictures on August 22nd, 2014. Be sure to check out the trailer below!