The motivation -- and central feat -- of independent cinema has always been the same: to do more with less. This ideology is hardly revolutionary, and in many cases is not so much a stylistic choice as a necessity. Enter Frownland, a low-budget drama by first-time director Ronald Bronstein. Frownland epitomizes the contradiction of independent cinema in that it is simultaneously both remarkable and mundane. It takes a bizarre, twisted, and ultimately depressing urban existence and forces us to realize that it is our own. It makes us hate and pity characters only to realize they are us. It makes us recoil in disgust at the abomination of life only to realize that this is it. Frownland is not merely a 21st-century indie film. It is 21st-century life.
Frownland may not, at first, seem particularly transcendent. Its opening segment is long and difficult -- a precursor to all the long, difficult scenes ahead. To put it plainly: Frownland is a long, difficult movie. It is almost unwatchable at times, not because it is bad, but because the shards of its social critique cut deeply and can make us severely uncomfortable. It is filled with the awkward silences and pathological anxiety that we desperately try to shield ourselves from in life. In many ways, Frownland begs to be turned off, forgotten about, dismissed. It takes an extraordinary risk in being so hopelessly frank and honest, one that not every viewer is going to be okay with. The film contains no romance, a miserably unhappy yet cathartic ending, and an almost indiscernible plot. But something far more profound and unexpected happens during the film's 105 minutes. Something plain and yet spectacular. Slowly, the viewer is integrated into the film's hopelessness and becomes one with its misguided entourage of characters. As in a classic novel, the deep meaning between the lines of aimless human dialog begins to reveal itself. Frownland is the sound and text of human suffering and alienation. It is a disgusting, beautiful portrait of regret and contempt. It is the cinematic rendering of the see-saw of indifference.
It is difficult to explain how Frownland accomplishes so much. There are few instances of truly revealing dialog. In fact, most of the film's revelations are hidden in the arc of its characters. We begin with Keith, the mentally unsound main character, who is unable to react to a friend's tears. By the end of the film, through endless and tireless scenes of sweat, tribulation, and panic, Keith finds himself crying and broken on the rooftop of a New York City apartment building. Along the way, he experiences perhaps the single most appropriate rendering of a physical catharsis. Surrounded by the ungodly noise and color of a city party in a scene that is ferociously dizzying and maddeningly reminiscent of Antonioni's Blow Up, Keith vomits. All his fear and anxiety surfaces in this final scene, and his rooftop weeping is the film's most prominently upsetting moment. His roommate Charles experiences a similar revelation: He lives in a comfortable world of academia and cultural capital, only to find that he can't pay the rent to maintain his bubbled-in lifestyle. What these two story lines drive at is the whole of Frownland's message: Any person can be driven to any logical extreme. No one is safe from a life that is hard, complex, and painful.
While all this is happening, the film maintains the gritty iconography of 1970s American New Wave. Its elegance is in its lack of polish, its rejection of beauty. The characters are ugly and normal. Frownland is filled with a mysterious pus that is somewhere between a disease and a soul. It is all the grandeur and decadence of sadness and anonymity. It lets light through to illuminate but refuses to clearly reveal its own design. It is miraculous and somehow not miraculous at all. We have all suffered trauma. Frownland meditates on and embraces the modern notion that to suffer is to live. Growth is painful. Experience can hurt like hell. But it brings us closer to ourselves. Without it, our lives would lose all semblance of meaning, of value. So, in that sense, maybe Frownland has a happy ending, after all.