It’s been a total of eight years since Ronald Bronstein made his directorial debut with Frownland, back in 2007 and has not directed any features since. Bronstein has not completely vanished from the indie film world; he’s contributed to a number of projects during his directorial dry spell, writing/editing Go Get Some Rosemary and Heaven Knows What (both for the Safdie brothers) to name a few. If history continues to repeat itself with each passing year devoid of a fresh Bronstein-directed production, debuting with and (perhaps) bowing out with Frownland as your introductory swan song is quite an impressive way to start/finish your career.
Gloomy and gritty, both in terms of content and aesthetics, Frownland revolves around Keith – a meek, socially-stilted man attempting to navigate the cruel circumstances of his life along with juggling the mounting social interactions with friends and acquaintances that leave him floundering and flailing endlessly, a deluge of awkwardness hemorrhaging forth from one uncomfortable situation after another. The discomfort-from-awkward-social-situations saturation point is immediately reached and exceeded within Keith’s first exchange with another person, continuing onward through various points of the discomfort spectrum.
Obviously, a quasi-neverending onslaught of situational ultra-awkwardness could be a bit overbearing with sequences and scenes leaning towards grating and exhausting, converting the undertaking of viewing the film into an endurance test. Yet, Bronstein (along with the benefit of his collaborators) is able to teeter the film’s mood and energy on a threshold, a razor’s edge tip-toeing between disintegrating into an unfocused, friction-filled mess of incoherence and a poignant eruption of suppressed emotions and urgency until it finally settles into a compacted clusterfuck of the two, creating a compelling viewing experience wherein the anticipation of potentially witnessing a cinematic trainwreck is realized in an altered state, quite different than expected, as an orchestrated intentional trainwreck of a character that (in hindsight) has been travelling on this path from the start.
It is difficult not to have your eyes glued to the lead performance from Dore Mann, as Keith, a knotted ball of frantic, buzzing energy forever operating from a place of anxiety and uncertainty awash in neuroses, practically drowning in neuroses, clogging his lungs to the point that his attempts at conversation resemble a mangled parade of aborted speech followed by a rapid recommittal only to be swiftly aborted once again. Even when our leading man finally fully commits to what he wants to say it flows forth uncontrollably from his mouth, jumbled diction irrepressible in volume and focus. Mann’s performance is a dedicated one; both, in terms of physicality and emotion.
Paul Grimstad, as Keith’s deadbeat yet socially-adjusted-enough roommate, Charles, provides the perfect counterbalance to Mann’s manic mannerisms. An articulate, purposed man that knows exactly what he wants to say and when. Charles is the complete opposite of Keith. At first, existing as a far-removed periphery character Charles eventually gets pulled into Keith’s life (the film’s focus even shifts for a time to Charles) and the interactions between the two do a great deal in heightening the entertainment factor of the film. Their back-and-forth verbal altercations highlight both the strength of Bronstein’s script as well as the line delivery dexterity of Mann and Grimstad.
Given the skill of Mann and Grimstad’s performances, it’s a wonder that neither have added anymore acting credits to their respective resumes. Granted, when it comes to Grimstad, he has continued working in film albeit behind-the-scenes providing original music to recent projects such as the Safdies’ Heaven Knows What and Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven. In Mann’s case, however, the only logical explanation behind the non-furthering of his acting career has to be because he left everything he has within the frames of Frownland, all the blood, sweat, snot and forced tears.
One man that has furthered his career since working on Bronstein’s debut would be cinematographer Sean Price Williams, here again working with film (16mm, blown up to 35mm). It’s interesting to see the origins of, arguably, one of the best working American cinematographers, witnessing the kernels of potential long after consuming the realization of those initial hints of talent. A showcase of unsteady handheld mixed with the occasional suffocating close-up mirroring the mind state of Keith, a nervous and fixated framing of the struggling coated in grit and grain, like a pseudo-relic of ‘70s New York filmmaking wherein the macho bravado and swagger are replaced with the acquiescing frames of nervous wrecks.