A dark descent down the rabbit hole of a perturbed, fragile and intensely neurotic mind, “Frownland” is the indie equivalent of a stiff drink. The buzz will shake some auds to giddy wonder and excitement while making others toss it into the sink, but all will agree it stays with you. Featuring an unbelievably internal and sustained performance by Dore Mann as one of the movies’ most troubled New Yorkers, pic amounts to a principled protest against standard filmmaking by tyro helmer Ronald Bronstein, likely to send risk-averse Stateside distribs screaming up the aisle, though Euro attention should compensate.
Pic drops into Keith’s life with no warning and plenty of portent, as the young man (played by Mann) watches a monster movie on the tube during his idea of a date with would-be g.f. Laura (Mary Wall).
In his day job soliciting donations for a multiple sclerosis foundation door-to-door, Keith is constantly undone by his inability to finish sentences. He doesn’t stutter so much as speak his words as if they’re stuck in a record groove. For gruff boss Carmine (Carmine Marino), Keith is just a drag on the operation.
Maintaining a constant gaze on such a character is a nervy act, and helmer flirts with total aud alienation by the time Keith tries to contact erstwhile friend Sandy (David Sandholm), who clearly wants nothing to do with the poor guy. But Sandy’s demeanor seems unfair somehow, and this, combined with Keith’s jerky musician roomie Charles (Paul Grimstad), tilts sympathies back toward Keith.
Bronstein sensitively gauges the temperature of Keith’s life as he endeavors to interact with others. That struggle, in fact, becomes the very point of “Frownland,” where any kind of human connection comes across as a triumphant exchange.
In a further audacious move in pic’s final third, the action shifts toward Charles, who believes himself to be a hotshot keyboard player (Grimstad himself composed the unsettling and effective score), but who’s really a lazy ne’er-do-well. When the apartment electricity is shut off , Charles applies for a couple jobs, leading to a pair of hilariously sharp scenes that lampoon the dehumanizing process of low-grade job-hunting.
Just when Keith has apparently left the movie, he emerges again in a fiercely bleak and emotionally terrifying finale among the nighttime clubs and alleyways of the Lower East Side. The sun rises, but seems to mock a life that appears denuded of any prospects.
Some viewers will be so convinced by Mann that they’ll conclude what’s onscreen isn’t a perf at all. Rookie thesp’s total commitment and absorption of every tic and behavioral detail is astonishing, and never once becomes an exercise in actorish mannerisms. His support is consistently on point, with Wall a study in terribly withdrawn shyness, Grimstad offering surprising shading and comedy, and a small, caustic turn by Paul Grant giving the film a kick just when it’s needed.
Super 16 lensing by Sean Williams is steeped in graininess, and Bronstein’s choice of wide lenses and closeups is perhaps too relentless, but part of the pic’s uncompromising aesthetic. Final credits, complete with ellipses, are a graphic throwback to pre-’70s credit style. Opening title appears almost subliminally onscreen.