Last year, American critics pretty fairly stood aghast and in awe of Ronald Bronstein’s “Frownland” (2007), conjuring up some of the most intense superlatives ever thrown at a cheap New York indie (the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody called it “one of the most unusual and audacious American independent films ever made”), while still sweating bullets of qualification, as if holding a wolverine by the short hairs.
It didn’t make much of a difference to audiences, who hardly noticed, but now that the film is being rather spectacularly DVD’d by the new Brooklyn outfit Factory 25, viewers can step up to this vicious peepshow and decide for themselves. Me, I’m not terribly convinced of the film’s brilliance or of the necessity of deflating the hoopla; the impact of “Frownland”‘s distinctive relentlessness has more to do, I think, with our expectations of film narrative than with the movie’s aesthetic triumph. As in, we expect movies to sympathize with our empathy, as it were — to facilitate an emotional connection between us and the characters at hand. Bronstein’s film does the opposite: it’s an alienation campaign.
But if it’s not terribly radical or “audacious” (this territory has been tread upon in other ways by strands of Cassavetes, “Chuck & Buck,” Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis” and even “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Observe and Report”), how appalled you are by it may depend on your expectations, which should be a good deal more seasoned than those of the festivalgoers that first encountered the movie. (Ignore the DVD over-packaging, including a soundtrack LP — ! — a comic book, a poster, a booklet laying out “insufferably long-winded” email exchange between characters, and even a three-inch hunk of actual 16mm film.) Simply, “Frownland” is a personal-space-invading character portrait of a witless, neurotic, helplessly irritating schlub named Keith (Dore Mann) who meets life’s insurmountable challenges with fight-or-flight thoughtlessness and, predominantly, a compulsive stream of repetitive babble, often punctuated with a conciliatory “I really appreciate this.”
Shot on 16mm with a minimum of lighting, the film offers as depressing a view of low-rent New York life as anyone’s seen since the punk films of the ’80s, and Bronstein’s pro-am aesthetic is restricted to claustrophobia and nauseous vertigo. Most of all, what we get is a pure-hearted piece of selfless acting, as Mann (no other credits on IMDb) creates his character’s desperate and embattled relationship with society on the fly — in the long haul, Keith’s slack-jawed stupidity and wild-eyed efforts to connect to others on even the most fundamental level are impressively exhausting.
Keith tries to negotiate the worst job (a fake door-to-door beggar for a fake multiple-sclerosis charity), cannot help a suicidal ex-girlfriend without trying (very ineptly) to fuck her, and has no friends, just a fed-up roommate (who’s in the catastrophic position of being jobless and beholden to Keith for shelter) and a barely tolerant old acquaintance who finds his life occasionally bumrushed by Keith. The social firefights that explode from Keith’s guileless demands for contact are uncomfortable and harrowing, and eventually lead to a comprehensive meltdown.
“Frownland” is all in the present, but the conviction brought to Keith effectively makes you imagine what kind of hellish life he’s had up to now, and whether his maladaptations were a product of savage experience or, somehow more sadly, always part of his makeup. But the demands put upon you as a viewer are relegated to watching Keith implode, and alternately summoning pity for the slob and thanking your lucky stars you’re nowhere near him. If this sounds like it could be your idea of “uncompromising” audacity, then run, don’t walk. Bronstein’s work may not, in the end, be quite that epochal, but it may be a jolt to the system for those who believe that American indie-hood is repped by the award winners out of Sundance.