In Lenny Abrahamson’s lovely film ‘Frank,’ Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a would-be musician who works an office job by day. It’s possible he doesn’t have a lot of talent.
He struggles with trite lyrics in his head and with equally trite tunes on his keyboard. One day he happens to be on the beach at the right moment (“right” being relative, mind you) when the keyboardist for an eccentric pop band is attempting to drown himself. Thus Jon is invited to become the new keyboardist. He heads up to a bucolic Irish cottage to help record a new album with the band, which includes Don (Scoot McNairy), Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the mysterious if affable Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears a gigantic, smiley helmet-mask over his face and apparently never takes it off.
What seems like the opportunity of a lifetime turns out to be much different than that, as Jon discovers that one or more members in the band may have legitimate problems. This is where Abrahamson’s film pushes beyond the typical band-movie tropes and becomes a moving portrait of artistic passion on the verge of madness and complete dysfunctionality. It’s also very funny, sometimes in a light-hearted way, and often in a darker way.
As Jon slowly realizes his bandmates are bonkers, he’s also busily at work attempting to transition them from obscurity to internet fame. He tweets about their progress on the album (his Twitter followers slowing going up), he posts videos on YouTube, and eventually nabs an invite for them to play at -- dun da DUN -- the South by Southwest Festival.
What I found fascinating is the connection Abrahamson draws between our internet age of audience engagement and the means by which bands, films, whatever attempt to draw attention and a fanbase. We live in a highly distracted culture that often necessitates gimmicks and stunts to attract followers, page hits, video views, what have you. Frank’s gigantic helmet would indeed seem like a stunt, as do a number of other things that play out in the film. But is it? Or is it the elephant in the room suggesting something much more concerning going on?
Now, about Frank. Abrahamson has done something quite brilliant with the casting here, akin to Spike Jonze using Scarlett Johansson’s voice in “Her.” The audience knows that Frank, underneath his helmet, looks like Michael Fassbender. (But, importantly, the characters in the film don’t.) Thus we can’t help but envision Fassbender’s handsome face, and everything we know about him as an actor, as we watch this strange character with a balloon head jump and jive about. It cleverly sets up certain expectations about Frank that Abrahamson is then able to completely upend. It also sets up suspense -- will we ever get to see Fassbender in the film, even though we know plenty well what he looks like?
This, in many ways, is what “Frank” is about. The cult of coolness surrounding someone can take away from truly understanding them. What seems like posturing may in fact be a cry for help, a troubled soul, a loving person in need of a family who gets him.
"Frank" screens at SXSW on March 12 and 13. It has an upcoming stateside release from Magnolia Pictures (date TBA).