Frank-screenpicks

While many of us like to consider ourselves free thinkers, there are some folks who have no choice but to truly live outside the box… Frank, the titular hero at the center of Irish director, Lenny Abrahamson’s oddly beautiful new film – played with hypnotic grace by Michael Fassbender – is one such person. Jittery, anxious, and decidedly hyper-phobic, but also brilliant, creative and charmingly insightful, his is a world confined by visible boundaries – i.e. the large caricature head he refuses to remove  – yet limitless in its creative possibilities. Not surprisingly, it’s also a world unlike any seen on celluloid before, a testament to the power of perversely funny, iconoclastic filmmaking at its finest.

John Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) dreams of being a rock superstar. Unfortunately, his life, much like his name, isn’t exactly inspired. That is, until he meets a motley crew of musical misfits – calling themselves “Soronprfbs” – who arrive in his provincial seaside town for a gig, only to watch their keyboardist attempt to drown himself in the briny blue. Soon, John’s been asked to replace him, but before the rookie can realize his life’s ambition, he must find a way to deal with the complicated, often volatile personalities that make up his new crew.

These include a petulant French duo named Baraque and Nana (Francois Civil and Carla Azur) on guitar and drums respectively, a seriously angsty Thereminist named Clara (played with delicious intensity by Maggie Gyllenhaal), troubled but loyal manager, Don (Scoot McNairy, continuing the role he’s been on since Argo), and of course, Frank…

Though enigmatic and often withdrawn, Frank doesn’t so much collaborate with his fellow musicians as pervade their hearts and minds entirely, encouraging self-expression, inspiring each person to seek creativity in the mundane, and no doubt reigning as the de facto artistic leader of the crew. Not surprisingly, the quirky frontman merits a level of loyalty and affection from his sullen comrades that is very different from the reception they roll out for young John, but Frank too isn’t without his issues, most notably the large Papier-Mâché head he uses as a barrier between himself and the rest of the world, refusing to remove it, even when he eats.

Yes, Frank is quite a character; one who might possibly be the smartest man in the room, or the most profoundly disturbed, depending upon how you look at it… But like all indelible cinematic oddballs from Boo Radley to Edward Scissorhands, therein lies his magic. Screenwriters John Ronson and Peter Straughan (who very loosely based the character on Frank Sidebottom, the comic persona of the late U.K. performer, Chris Sievey, amongst other musicians) are aware of the thin line between madness and genius, but rather than exploit that tired trope, they use it as a jumping off point to explore issues as inherent to both art and life as identity, voice, creative output, and that age old question of what it really means to sell out.

And thanks to Abrahamson’s assured, subtly comic style, this thoughtful script never feels too didactic or worse, desperate for Arcade Fire-like hipster cred. Instead, the director is able to fashion a world that – like Frank himself  – still has its roots in reality, yet somehow exists on a whimsically supernatural plain where self-expression, loyalty, and true collaboration are paramount.

But of course, none of this would be possible without the astonishing physical performance given by Michael Fassbender in the title role. His face totally obscured for most of the film, the actor somehow still manages to convey a vulnerability and charm that is absolutely intoxicating, mastering Frank’s wounded yet boyish physicality, fitting him with the perfect unfussy Midwest accent, and instantly making us understand why his not so merry band of misfits would follow him anywhere. Oh, yeah, and naturally his songs kick ass too… particularly the haunting “I Love You All” (written by Fassbender and Azur along with the film’s musical composer, Stephen Rennicks.)

Featuring an astonishing lead performance from Fassbender, not to mention a cast and crew that are aces all around, ‘Frank’ is easily one of the best films of the year.