With 'The Babadook' and 'Frank,' Sundance Launches Thrilling New Talents

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by Sam Adams
January 18, 2014 6:33 PM
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Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson in 'Frank'

At certain points during the Sundance Film Festival, perhaps when you're missing a movie you desperately wanted to see because it's taking the shuttle bus an hour to go a mile and a half, you may start to wonder why you're there. Why spend the money and the time to go hundreds or thousands of miles from home so you can spend most of your time slogging between venues to see movies that will probably be at your local art house before the end of the year -- or, in some cases, the end of the month?

And then you have a night like Friday, where in less than five hours 2014 went from being a good Sundance to a great one.

It began with Frank, the intriguingly quirky-sounding story of a struggling musician (Domhnall Gleeson) who falls in with an obscure but dedicated rock band fronted by a singer with an enormous papier-mache head. That said head was placed atop of the shoulders of one of the world's most beautiful men, Michael Fassbender, lent the film a note of pleasing perversity: Casting Michael Fassbender without showing his face is akin to hiring James Earl Jones and having him speak only in falsetto. But was this really a big enough idea to hang an entire film on? As it turns out, it was, and then some. 

In his introduction, Sundance director John Cooper said that the festival tracks many films as they wend their way through the labyrinth of development, but they've never tracked any movie as long as Frank, and that's not surprising. Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan's script -- based, amazingly enough, in fact -- has Black List written all over it; you can imagine potential investors saying "It's the best thing I've ever read" and "Too risky for me" in the same breath. But though its prospects for broad commercial success may be dim, Frank is a movie that the right people will take to heart; to the people it speaks to, it speaks volumes.

The idea of a band fronted by a singer who never shows his true face comes off at first as an absurdist goof, a way of embodying the alienation felt by Gleeson's sheltered would-be artist as he slips into the rock 'n' roll underground. But as Gleeson falls in deeper with the band, whose name is an unpronounceable tangle of consonants, Frank's larkish high concept becomes surprisingly resonant, and eventually heartbreaking. Without giving away too much, the film's arc traces how dangerous the prospect of even the smallest public recognition can be to a creative collective still working out who and what they want to be, and it traces with understated profundity how success in the age of Twitter and YouTube can reduce complicated art to its crudest, most viral components. Director Lenny Abrahamson handles the film's tonal shifts with intelligence and grace -- a welcome change from the gear-grinding of opening night's Whiplash -- and Fassbender's largely faceless performance is a master class in comic physicality. Like the character he plays, Fassbender seems liberated by his onscreen disguise, free to pursue extremes without the baggage of his famous face.

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in 'The Babadook'

I like to see at least one midnight screening at Main Street's Egyptian Theatre every year, even though the festival's iconic venue is a pain to get to and, with fewer than 200 seats, to get into as well. But sometimes, you get to be part of the first audience to see an unknown filmmaker make her debut with a flat-out masterpiece.

Jennifer Kent's The Babadook starts unprepossessingly, with a run-of-the-mill dream sequence of widowed mom Essie Davis recalling the car accident that took her husband's life. But the nightmares that come to haunt Davis and her six-year-old son, played by Noah Wiseman, are anything but run of the mill. Wiseman, whose father died driving his pregnant mother to the hospital, is an isolated, bug-eyed kid who busies himself designing weapons to fend off the monsters he's convinced are creeping up as he sleeps. But it's not until a handmade children's book called Mister Babadook turns up on his bedroom shelf that his fears begin to have a shape.

Kent makes the Babadook, as the increasingly distraught Davis and Wiseman come to know it, a sharp-edged shadow that melds nameless childhood terror with the all-too-real fears of adult life. It's the thing that goes bump in the night, but it's also the unresolved trauma of Davis' crippling loss, the fact that she irrationally holds her son responsible for her husband's death and hates herself for feeling that way. Eventually, the monster does take on corporeal form(s), but even then it feels manmade, created through practical effects and in-camera trickery rather than CGI. (In her post-film Q&A, Kent proclaimed her love of German Expressionist films and the pioneering cutout animation of Lotte Reininger.)

It would be unfair to give too much away when only a few hundred people have seen The Babadook, but suffice it to say that Kent realizes a mid-film role reversal with almost invisible grace, aided immensely by her lead actors, and delves into the most primal aspects -- positive and negative -- of parenthood. As a rule, it's a bad idea for first-time filmmakers to lay their inspirations bare, but Kent earns her homages to George Melies and Mario Bava, with a pinch Roman Polanski's Replusion besides. Horror, especially of the psychological ilk, is the most technically demanding of genres, but Kent's command of image and sound belies her first-time status, and instantly establishes her as a major voice in the field.

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