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Ronald Bronstein describes his extraordinary film as "a brown tomato lobbed with spazmo aimed at the spotless surface of the silver screen." Frownland has garnered passionate raves and scathing denunciation. Screenings have ended in screaming matches. None of Frownland's reputation does justice to its savage dark humor, emotional heft and stylistic audacity. Frownland is a character study of Keith, a neurotic, manipulative, unlovable New Yorker. Keith lurches his way through an uncaring city, attempting to aid a suicidal friend, evict his roommate, and attain some self-respect.
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Bronstein's low-frills approach invites comparison to Dogma 95, the movement to purify cinema by shedding soundtracks, lighting, and other elements of artifice. Yet the only Dogma 95 film I have seen, Denmark's The Celebration (1998), felt no less contrived in plot than do Hollywood blockbusters in computer-generated imagery. Bronstein said afterward that he considered not using any soundtrack, but changed his mind--and thank goodness he did, for the film's haunting melodies echo the emptiness of Keith's life.
Keith's equally stilted friends may want nothing to do with him, but Mann makes him a captivating presence for the film's 106 minutes. Originally Frownland was four hours long, but Bronstein pared it down after realizing one scene of Keith trying to sell a coupon would suffice for ten. Still, Mann's pained interactions with elderly suburbanites are so engaging one hopes the filmmakers will include at least some of the additional footage on DVD.
The main emotion Keith feels is betrayal, but even at the prodding of his off-screen therapist--the only one willing to listen to him--Keith cannot vocalize his alienation from his parents. The therapist, like the film, offers no answers. Frownland was nominated for an IFC Spirit Award, and any first work of such intensity arrives with inevitable comparisons. Here Bronstein's pacing evokes Kubrick's measured tread. With his wild hair and deep-set eyes, Mann bears a slight resemblance to David Berkowitz, as the New York Times' Manohla Dargis observed, but he also comes across as part Willy Loman (although at least Loman had a family, as one audience member pointed out); Campbell Scott as the emotionally isolated Roger Dodger; and a more interactive (but less functional) Travis Bickle.
Underscoring the anonymity of the characters is the muted backdrop; we could be looking at any city. Bronstein almost seems to be disguising the fact that the film was shot in New York, an odd counterpoint to the countless films shot in other cities, usually Toronto, that try to conceal French signage and local landmarks in order to portray New York. Only at the very end do we gain a panoramic glimpse of the Manhattan skyscape, as if Keith is taking in everything around him for the first--or last?--time. Like Patrick Bateman at the close of "American Psycho," he finds no catharsis, but without Bateman's powers of introspection, Keith can only wallow in confusion. There is no exit here.
But don't be fooled by its subtlety--"Frownland" is a force of nature.
Keith has serious problems.. the root of it could be some kind of stuttering or speech problem that has caused him to be pretty much a misfit. You can see why everyone around him gets tired of him, even he himself can see why people can't stand him... yet he keeps tying, because what else can he do? He has to earn rent and get by.
I guess the sad part is that he is forced to try and get along in the everyday world, which he clearly isn't fit for. Of course he ends up with a horrible job and wretched living situation.. both of which would be hard to tolerate for the most emotionally stable persom. We've all had similar horrid jobs and roommates, but most people grow up and move on. But there's a sense that Keith will never be able to do any better, and he knows it. He clearly needs some kind of help that probably is not available in the US... sad sad sad.
It is interesting to watch this along with the Norwegian film "Elling" to see how the functionally mentally ill are treated in other countries.