Review: Ronald Bronstein’s “Frownland”

Whether you love or hate Ronald Bronstein’s 2007 debut feature, the unclassifiable and astonishing slice of New York miserablism known as Frownland, one thing is irrefutable: there has never been a film quite like this one. There are some discernible strands evident in Frownland’s cinematic DNA. This film has been associated with so-called “mumblecore,” referring to a loose confederation of recent American independent filmmakers, many of whom make their features with close friends and other collaborators, working outside the mainstream industry, and whose films boast a lo-fi aesthetic and an off-the-cuff, improvisational feel. Comparisons can also be made with the kitchen-sink dramatics of John Cassavetes – the pathologically inarticulate protagonist could be a much more extreme male counterpart to Gena Rowlands’ troubled character in A Woman Under the Influence. There are also excerpts within the film of a Buster Keaton film, which highlights the fact that much of Frownland has no dialogue, as well as the wickedly deadpan humor that sits cheek-by-jowl with the misery on display. The film’s eerie electronic score and its grotesqueries of human behavior also bring to mind David Lynch’s Eraserhead. However, such comparisons in this case can take you only so far. Bronstein’s film, more than anything else, is as pure and uncompromised an artistic vision as any I’ve ever seen. The viewer is pulled into the grubby world of its singularly maladroit and unpleasant main character and the other people in his orbit, and is forced to relate to the work on its own terms, take it or leave it.

The term “sad sack” doesn’t even begin to describe our (anti)hero, Keith (Dore Mann), a man as deferential and easy-to-please as he is off-putting and annoying. At the film’s outset, he is interrupted from a blissful night of watching a monster movie while eating popcorn off an open oven door by a frantic phone call from his sometime girlfriend Laura (Mary Wall, Bronstein’s wife). The next scene establishes Keith’s method of communicating, or more accurately, mis-communicating with others: instead of complete sentences or thoughts, what emerges from Keith’s mouth are half-formed syllables and painfully extended pauses, as he physically struggles to get words to come out. This is extremely exasperating to those with the misfortune to have to speak with him in the film, as well as some viewers in the audience. Laura is no less inarticulate, her violent, snot-laden crying jags precluding any sort of coherent speech on her part. She bolts from the car in disgust, and Keith does something very bizarre and, at first, inexplicable: he pulls his eyes open and makes groaning noises for what feels like an interminably long time. Soon it becomes apparent that he is doing this to induce fake tears, to impress Laura with his supposed sensitivity to her distress. This scene is a great example of the humor that exists in abundance in this film, an aspect of Frownland that gets criminally short shrift in most reviews of this film. Much more than the miserably depressive work it has been made out to be, Bronstein brilliantly balances hilarity and pain in a uniquely beautiful way.

Keith has what is probably one of the most unrewarding professions possible: door-to-door solicitation for a dubious charity supposedly benefiting multiple sclerosis. He recites the same script to each prospect about a (probably fictional) brother who suffers from this disease. He is perpetually on the verge of being fired by his ever-exasperated boss Carmine (Carmine Marino). His home life offers no respite from the misery: his roommate Charles (Paul Grimstad, who also composed the film’s score) is an imperious aspiring musician who spends his nights composing cheesy electronic music, and barely tolerates Keith’s presence in the house, this despite the fact that he is unemployed and not keeping up with his share of the rent and utility payments. Keith, ever afraid to give offense, delays broaching the subject. This leads to a hilarious scene in which by all rights Keith, as the aggrieved party, should have the upper hand, but instead is subjected to a wicked role reversal by Charles, who rather than being the least bit apologetic, unleashes a vicious round of invective on his hapless, squirming victim.

Keith has what passes for a best friend in Sandy (David Sandholm), who treats him as little more than a nuisance to be rid of as soon as humanly possible. In a very telling scene, Keith worms his way into Sandy’s apartment one night after coming there to retrieve a name tag he left behind and asks to watch a Buster Keaton film with him. Keith promptly falls asleep, and Sandy takes advantage of this to fast forward through the tape to the end, after which he wakes Keith up and sends him home. Keith: “Can I call you later?” Sandy: “I’ll be asleep for a really long time.”

Having neither a plot nor a resolution and structured as a connected series of tragicomic vignettes, Frownland is most remarkable in the way it continually keeps us off balance by not allowing us to be complacent in any sense, in characterizations or atmosphere. As unpleasant as these characters are, and as few redeeming qualities they may have, it is possible to have at least some sympathy for them. Much of the humor in the film, as well as the despair, stems from their unsuccessful attempts to communicate with others and make sense of the world around them. Shot in raw, textured 16-millimeter film, subsequently blown up to 35-millimeter, which emphasizes the grain, giving the images a nearly tactile quality, Frownland is framed mostly in uncomfortably intimate close-ups, a potent representation of how literally in-your-face this film is. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ background is in documentaries, and he brings this aesthetic to Frownland with exhilaratingly inventive results, following the film’s unhinged protagonist, as well as its other characters, with a chaotic intensity that matches their troubled psyches. A deeply personal (and largely autobiographical) labor of love shot piecemeal over five years by Bronstein, a NYC-area freelance projectionist, Frownland is as singular and unforgettable an experience as you will ever have at the movies. It is a bold, bloody, spit and snot-covered middle finger to the hordes of faux-quirky Juno and Little Miss Sunshine clones that are laughingly described as “independent.” It’s not for everyone, by any means, but for those that are sufficiently open-minded and adventurous, Frownland reaps rich artistic rewards.