Not only do they not make them like Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland anymore, did they ever? Frownland is an idiot savant of a movie, a hilarious tumor, a descent into the toilet bowl world of a ferociously off-putting character, a stammering New Yorker who is unable to articulate a shapeless grunt. But not so fast. Because just when you start to truly despise this pathetic mess of a man and cringe with repulsion at the mere sight of him, Bronstein shifts gears and makes you start to feel sorry for the guy. For viewers who like to know exactly where they stand with their characters, Frownland will be a discomfiting experience. For those who find exhilaration in work that challenges convention and reflects the sloppiness of real life, it will come as an electrocuting revelation. Two things are certain, however: Frownland will elicit a strong reaction; and, perhaps more importantly, no one can deny that after having directed only one feature film, Ronald Bronstein is a bona fide mad genius.
In reviews of entertainment, it’s become commonplace for writers to describe a film as “this meets that meets this.” One could certainly do that with Frownland. There are the acerbic confrontations of up-to-Naked Mike Leigh. There is the grainy, microscopic photography of Frederick Wiseman. There is the ineffably paradoxical tone of art meets trash that recalls John Waters or George Romero or Lloyd Kaufman or Damon Packard. There’s even the demented humor of Mad Magazine. But what makes playing this game with Frownland impossible is that you simply can’t do it, for even attempting to draw comparisons to other films undersells the complete and utter uniqueness of Bronstein’s vision. Or, to put it much more cornily: Frownland is Ronald Bronstein’s brain on celluloid.
You can’t tell this story and film it prettily. Sean Williams’s abrasive 16mm cinematography—crusty, grainy, shaky, jarring—recalls a lost era in independent film, where imperfect, underlit imagery established an atmosphere of unshakeable authenticity. These days, when low-budget filmmakers adopt this approach—on digital video, no less—it’s out of laziness or sloppiness. Here, it’s out of a deep-seated desire to retain a visceral connection to an earlier, more uncompromising moment in film history. Bronstein’s decision to embrace this aesthetic—a seemingly anachronistic decision for the digitally driven early 21st Century—results in a truly freakish tone. Combined with Paul Grimstad’s synthesized score and an absence of up-to-the-minute pop culture references, Frownland feels like a 1983 filmmaker’s vision of a rundown, futuristic New York City.
Non-actor Dore Mann inhabits the hyper-anti-social, manic Keith with frightening authenticity. Keith’s increasing inability to express himself creates a rising tension that threatens to assault viewers right out of the theater. But Bronstein is aware of this, and—demented genius that he is—he gives us a respite from Keith midway through the film by taking a rule-breaking narrative sidetrack into the world of Keith’s brutal snob of a roommate, Charles. After Charles has berated him so badly that we feel an inexplicable wave of sympathy for Keith, Charles goes out into the real world and has his own humiliating encounter with another bitter individual. Yet somehow, once again—against our very best judgment—we start to feel sorry for Charles when we thought we hated him just moments before. It’s clear that one of Bronstein’s main goals with his film—perhaps one of his main goals as a filmmaker—is to keep viewers teetering on an uncomfortable emotional precipice, never allowing their opinions and judgments to fully form. In that sense, Frownland is more than just an engrossing experience. It’s a work of cinematic confrontation, a slap in the face to audiences who have become passive, stagnant, and numb.
The aforementioned scene of Charles’s humiliation brings up the most important, and oftentimes most unrecognized, element of Frownland: its biting humor. This is established early, as Keith and his morose high school girlfriend Laura (played by the director’s soon-to-be wife Mary Wall) are arguing in a car. Only they aren’t arguing in a typical movie sense, for Keith is too excited too formulate a sentence, and Laura is crying too hard to mutter a word. At one point, a massive gob of snot slowly droops out of Laura’s nostril like a slug, only to be snorted back up in a gravity-defying display of disgustingly comic proportions. At this moment, Laura flees, leaving Keith alone. What he does next is better left untold, for while it at first appears to be an utterly insane and frighteningly ludicrous gesture, the punch line reveals it to be an ingeniously calculated and hilariously original one. At this early point in the film, if a viewer doesn’t grasp that Bronstein has a sense of humor about all of this misery, they will never grasp it. That would be a shame, for this push-and-tug of comedy and drama is what makes Frownland the original beast that it is, a towering freak of nature.
At a time when the independent film scene appears to be finding its footing, Ronald Bronstein has emerged as a crazed pied piper calling all filmmakers back to the fringes. Frownland is a fierce challenge to the watered-down, sterilized, and uninspired assembly-line filmmaking that has somehow even begun to permeate the major festival circuit. It is cinema at its purest, bravest, and most furiously individual.
— Michael Tully