[A variation of this review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2007 SXSW Film Festival]
"Frownland", the first feature of New York-based projectionist-turned-director Ronald Bronstein, is the cinematic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. It was also my favorite film at the last year’s SXSW Film 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. When I first reviewed the film, I suggested you shouldn’t expect to see it in a theater near you anytime soon one year later, Mr. Bronstein has secured, while not a run of the nation’s cineplexes, a solid one-week NY run for “Frownland” at the IFC Center. If that does happen to be a theater near you, I highly suggest you make your way down there.
Bronstein’s main actor, Dore Mann, plays (or is — 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 do so; 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 open animosity. Keith is like no character I can recalls having seen in a film before — 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 — 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 and indie circuit these days, and the sound design recalls the industrial assaults of David Lynch. At a Q&A after the film’s SXSW premiere, 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 I’ve ever witnessed, but also seemed weirdly appropriate to the film.
[Photo: Dore Mann in “Frownland,” Frownland, Inc, 2007]