We wouldn’t expect "Frownland" (winner of a narrative Special Jury Award) to come to a theater near you anytime soon. The film, directed by New York-based projectionist Ronald Bronstein, is the cinematic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. It’s also our favorite film at the festival, one that dares you to walk out until you, perhaps out of spite, find yourself totally drawn in and so in its strange headspace that you harbor concerns for your sanity.
Bronstein’s main actor, Dore Mann, plays (or is â€” one suspects his role in the film is a mixture of performance and unadorned existence) Keith, a man who lives in the kitchen of a shared one-bedroom apartment and works as a door-to-door salesman fund-raising for a multiple sclerosis charity. Everyone in his life, including his roommate Charles (Paul Grimstad), his ostensible friend Sandy (David Sandholm) and his sister? cousin? girlfriend? Laura (Mary Wall) treats him with thinly veiled or open hostility, which sounds unfair, except that Keith is possibly the most irritating human being on earth. A chain-smoking, wet-lipped bundle of incoherence, he quivers under an unending struggle to force what he’d like to say out from under a nervous stutter, crippling hesitation and a hopelessly circuitous style of speaking. His inability to get his point across is matched only by his need to; he’s constantly, preemptively apologizing while also refusing to acknowledge any social cues. Minor confrontations like his asking his bullying musician roommate to pay the electricity bill escalate almost instantly into animosity. Keith is like no character we can recalls having seen in a film before â€” whatever sympathy he amasses as we follow him through the miserable routine that is his life erodes as soon as he opens his mouth.
The thing is, everyone in "Frownland" seems caught up in their own kind of misery, and Keith is such an easy punching bag. Midway through the film we abandon Keith briefly for Charles, and see that he’s not better off, jobless and broke, out-cynical pseudointellectualized by someone he meets testing for the same tutoring job, who declares in a line for the ages that "I’m nostalgic for a Kafkaesque universe."
When we wander back to Keith, it’s only to watch the one person he’s so far been able to make sit still and listen to him finally crack and shoves him away. He’s left to stagger through a New York that’s made up to be the worst kind of urban hell â€” one that’s malevolent and that offers absolutely no respite or space to call your own.
"Frownland" was shot on film, a rarity on the festival circuit these days, and the sound design recalled for us the industrial assaults of David Lynch. At the Q&A after the film, one audience member informed Bronstein that she had tinnitus and that the last 20 minutes had been agony for her, and then looked to him expectantly, as if he were suppose to promise to make his future films with sufferers of tinnitus foremost in mind. It was one of the stranger Q&A moments we’ve witnessed, but also seemed weirdly appropriate to the film.
"Frownland" currently has no US distribution.