“Frownland” is an unkind, unrelenting reality, a painful truth. It’s so painfully realistic that it’s less of a film and more of an intrusive thought pounding on your head. It was written and directed by Ronald Bronstein who has since gone on to write every narrative Safdie brothers film aside from “Daddy Longlegs,” which he stars in.
The plot follows a man with severe social anxiety living in a dingy New York City apartment with a roommate who hates him. He has very few friends, and the ones he has are often reluctant to spend time with him. To make things worse, he works as a door-todoor salesman, barely making enough money to survive due to his social anxiety, which makes him come off as overbearing to customers. Keith, played by Dore Mann, is our troubled protagonist.
Mann plays his part excellently, anxiously rambling unnaturally and unpredictably. The other actors play off him extremely well, appearing annoyed and confused with his erratic behavior.
When you watch “Frownland” and see the realism portrayed through the acting, writing and filmmaking, you can’t help but grit your teeth until its climax, when it finally releases its hold on you.
It was made on a miniscule budget, shot on 16 mm film and starred actors who were not paid, only acting when they had free time. Ultimately, the film took six years to shoot, resulting in its chaotic and homemade feel. The handcrafted nature of the film may be off-putting to some, but it only adds to the grimy feeling you get while watching. The film is almost unbearably uncomfortable, using close-ups and relying solely on handheld camera movements. There’s a scene toward the middle of the film where Keith and his roommate are arguing and Keith is pushed. He bumps into the camera but it never stops filming; it just shakily returns to its voyeuristic position. The film has a disdain for its audience, making us endure its upsetting reality. It forces the viewer out of their comfort zone and into a stressful environment that does not hold back until the credits finally roll.
The audience is an outsider, much like Keith, and the film places us in his perspective and forces us to watch no matter how badly we’d like to look away.
We watch as Keith tries to comfort a friend in need but is unable to open his mouth. We see him attempt to do a good job at work but is yelled at by his employer for not performing well enough. We see him go home without pay and be scolded by his roommate for not making enough money. We see him attempt to confide in a friend who doesn’t understand him and is annoyed by his presence.
We watch as Keith painfully persists through everyday life. His days repeat again and again and we can’t do anything but watch as a man sorrowfully spirals toward his breaking point. A film has never felt more abrasive than Brontein’s “Frownland.”
Benjamin Martins can be contacted at