Movies can upset you for a lot of reasons: some are about depressing subjects, some feature actors you may find personally distasteful, and some are just poorly made. And then there are those that frustrate you because they show hints of promise that are drowned out by the film’s negative aspects.
Into that last category falls “Frownland,” the feature debut of director Ronald Bronstein. Shot on 16mm and set in the dwindling seedy underbelly of post-millennial New York City, “Frownland” hearkens back to both the cinematic style and themes of the 1970s. It’s the story of Keith (Dore Mann), a troubled young man who sleeps on a mattress of the apartment he shares with his delusional musician roommate and takes a van to his job selling coupon books door to door.
However Keith has even bigger problems than that, being pathologically incapable of communication with others. His attempts to engage in conversation are excruciating to behold, both in terms of onscreen discomfort and in how much running time they take up. This problem causes everyone close to him to push him further and further away, and as the movie progresses, Keith’s mental stability, already shaky, slowly but surely erodes, culminating in an extended breakdown that Bronstein captures in agonizing detail.
“Frownland” shows glimpses of comedic brilliance. Bronstein obviously has a gift for dialogue and in teasing the pathos out of even the most mundane of situations, which makes the overlong sequences that surround such sparks that much more annoying. Mann is a talent to watch, but in attempting to capture the themes of alienation and difficulties so many of us have with human interaction (and further proving that everyone who lives in New York City is clinically insane), Bronstein leaves us with a great deal of dead weight. Instead of being very moving or affecting, “Frownland” feels self-indulgent, and rather than feeling sympathy for the main character, we end up just wishing he’d put himself – and us – out of his misery.