[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Frank opens today in limited release.]
“He’s the sanest person I’ve ever met,” band manager Don (Scoot McNairy) tells keyboardist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) about their lead singer and songwriter, Frank (Michael Fassbender). Frank wears a giant fake head that he never takes off. Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank is a funny, warm, thoughtful story about crafting an artistic identity, and needing to seize on to someone else’s expression when you don’t have one of your own. It also provides an insightful look at the fault in trying to forge an identity based on the acceptance of others instead of embracing one’s own oddities and shortcomings even if the world at large sees them as “insane”.
Jon is a songwriter and keyboard player who’s struggling to find his own voice. One day, he has a chance encounter with Don, whose keyboardist is in the midst of trying to drown himself in the ocean. Since the band, The Soronprfbs, now has an opening, Jon joins them only to discover that their lead singer and songwriter, Frank, wears a giant fake head all the time. Their music is equally strange, but Jon, eager to improve his limited talent, gets swept up in the unique group and follows them out to the wilderness where they try to record an album. During their time in the forest, Jon tries to bond with Frank and boost the band’s profile online, but his actions put him in the crosshairs of the band’s angry Theremin player, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Frank is based off author Jon Ronson’s personal experience working with musician Frank Sidebottom, the alter-ego of Chris Sievey, in the 1980s. Rather than do a straight adaptation of what happened between Jon and Frank, Ronson, who co-wrote the script with Peter Straughan, wisely updates it for the present day, which allows the film to incorporate the false face of the 21st century, social media. Abrahamson quickly establishes a comic tone as we listen to Jon’s dumb songs based on what he sees walking down the street (we call this the “Randy Newman School of Songwriting”) followed by some of his lame tweets like “Having a ham and cheese sandwich. #livingthedream” (Abrahamson also notes how many followers Jon has). Jon is trying to find himself by reaching out to a faceless online crowd, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he embraces a man who wears a false face.
But there’s nothing false about the face to Frank. He’s like a transsexual except instead of feeling like he was born with the wrong sex, he was born with the wrong head. It’s part of who he is, and yet unlike someone who feels like they’re the wrong sex, the head also functions as a shield. It’s a fascinating duality of something that’s both a way to embrace the world and to hide from it. Jon can’t help shake his curiosity about the man beneath the head because then he can see Frank’s flawed human form. Then Frank isn’t someone extraordinary who can make the pure music (its quality is debatable) that escapes Jon.
The film does a terrific job of exploring individual identity through the various members of the band. There’s Jon’s misunderstanding of the band’s mission and his own purpose within it; Clara is overly protective and feels that Jon is encroaching on her territory; and Don has a very specific sexual fetish that’s both funny and also relates to how people can embrace an identity that makes them happy but also cuts off the world. Jon and Frank spend the film trying to reconcile the two because music is a form of personal expression, but it’s also meant to be played for strangers. Even the wilderness where they record their album functions as both a creative haven and a shelter from the outside world.
The themes help enrich the narrative, but Abrahamson never belabors the point. However, he also can’t seem to follow Frank’s ethos. Frank marvels at the strangeness not of his behavior, but of the world. He notes that human faces are weird if you stop and think about them. It’s a re-examination of the conventional, but Frank, although it has a rich story and interesting characters, never breaks with conventional filmmaking. Even Jon attempts to wade into The Soronprfbs’ strange waters, but Abrahamson is unwilling to follow suit. Instead, he keeps the picture steady and lets his performers give the movie its spark.
Gleeson turns in a strong performance as the sanest man in the asylum or the craziest person in a sane world depending on how you view his approach to life. The actor’s endearing attitude helps temper Jon’s behavior without absolving him of it. Gyllenhaal adds some nice punch with Clara’s threatening attitude and McNairy can easily walk away with a scene just by flashing a wide-eyed, toothy, demented smile. But the film’s real standout is, unsurprisingly, Fassbender. This is the kind of role a talented actor relishes because it removes one of their greatest tools (in this case, facial expressions) and forces them to rely more on line delivery and body language. Instead of letting the fake head get in the way, Fassbender owns it and makes Frank a real person rather than an eccentric or an oddity.
As I’ve said in other reviews, “Be yourself” is a nice platitude, but it’s shallow and misleading. Identity is difficult, and all of us who are on social media are living double lives. We’re wearing the false head of our best photo or funny avatar. We’re carefully crafting our language. Some of us (and I’ll shamefully admit I’m one of them) are sheepishly checking our number of Twitter follows as some form of personal validation so we can believe what we’re putting out into the world has some merit. And to then throw creative expression into the mix can be even scarier. Although it may not follow its title character’s lead, Frank still manages to brilliantly and humorously examine how catering to the whims of others and relying on their approval can be much crazier than putting on a giant, fake head and telling people you’re giving them a big smile.