Frownland

Frownland ★★★½

[Originally written on my blog; ignore the reference to a video, which is long gone from YouTube almost a decade later.]

A bit late for this, admittedly, what with the Skandie deadline just a week away, but I only just now caught up with what is unmistakably one of last year's most amazing performances. As a portrait of social pathology, Frownland isn't quite as memorably cringeworthy as Maren Ade's little-seen The Forest for the Trees, which it vaguely resembles. Both films place us in uncomfortably close proximity to a protagonist who's incapable of adhering to (or even of recognizing) the unspoken yet rigidly enforced codes of conduct by which most of us live. But whereas Eva Lobau's boundary-trampling Melanie comes across as a reasonably normal young woman on the surface, Dore Mann, in his screen debut, concocts a specimen of Homo oblivious so ghastly as to be at once unwatchable and utterly mesmerizing. Imagine (if you can) one of Kristen Wiig's more outlandish SNL caricatures—Penelope, say, or travel correspondent Judy Grimes—as the focus of a deadly serious feature film, shot in deliberately scuzzy 16mm and continuing well, well, well past the point where the subject's involuntary tics could be considered even hideously funny. That would be Keith.

Unfortunately, my favorite scene in the film features Keith on the other end of a phone conversation, audible but not visible; it only fully works in context, when you've spent half an hour or so with him and can picture the compulsive bobbing and weaving in your head. Instead, what you'll find above is Keith's hapless attempt to get his deadbeat roommate, Charles* (Paul Grimstad), to take care of an overdue electric bill. Bear in mind that (a) this takes place roughly halfway into the movie; (b) it's the first interaction these two characters have had (i.e. the hostility Charles evinces has not "developed" in any way since the film began); and (c) Keith only dares to make this request after he's first tried and failed to talk some random store clerk into reading a phony Con Ed last-warning notice into the apartment's answering machine. But truly, I could have selected almost any scene in Frownland at random; it's Mann's uncanny impression of a stuttering motor that compels.

* A bit of ancillary criticism: Shortly after this scene, the film abruptly shifts to Charles' POV, following him around as he looks for work, plays video games, and takes a practice LSAT exam alongside another supercilous job applicant. I understand what writer/director Ronald Bronstein intends by doing this—we're clearly meant to recognize that Charles, though far more "normal" than Keith in terms of demeanor and temperament, is in his own way every bit as pathologically needy and clueless. But I still think it's a huge mistake. Partly because it comes across as didactic—this lengthy sequence has no conceivable function except as blunt counterpoint, and hence feels Message-y—but mostly because the film only really works to the extent that we're trapped inside Keith's addled head. Taking a 20-minute break to compare/contrast him with other, more conventional head cases allows us the very respite that we've been praying for and should really have been denied.