Turning That Smile Upside Down

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The New York Sun

In a world where Miramax is without the Weinstein brothers and New Line Cinema is without its own founder, Robert Shaye, gone are the days when some video store clerk could max out his credit card to finance a feature film and become the talk of Sundance overnight. That hasn’t deterred Ronald Bronstein from getting his film made, though. The Brooklynite has spent the last five years working as a projectionist in various art houses around the city, all the while assembling his first feature, “Frownland.” It’s as raw and as offbeat as independent film gets — which is exactly the kind of stuff that the studios’ so-called indie divisions won’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Despite earning a Spirit Award nomination,

“Frownland” begins its one-week run at the IFC Center today without a distributor attached.

The film begins as sort of a quasi-Dogme 95 (the Danish do-it-yourself movement led in the 1990s by Lars von Trier) or Mumblecore (the more recent American do-it-yourself movement spearheaded by Andrew Bujalski) comedy depicting a date from hell. Keith (Dore Mann), a painfully self-aware and stuttering bundle of nerves who bills himself as a “troll from under the bridge,” invites the moody, self-mutilating Laura (Mary Wall) to his dingy apartment, where the oven door doubles as a snack tray. Their interaction is awkward and embarrassing, but it is also comedic, perhaps due to her garbled voice heard over the intercom, or a close-up of her dangling snot, or him feigning compassionate tears after she has cried all night and barely muttered a word.

But laughter becomes an increasingly rare commodity as “Frownland” slowly develops into a multidimensional portrait of a grown-up misfit. Keith makes his living selling coupon books door to door. He is incapable of engaging his perpetually headphone-wearing roommate Charles (Paul Grimstad) in a conversation about the power bill, and he desperately clings to his friend Sandy (David Sandholm) for companionship, seeking his company at the most inopportune times. But the person Keith thinks of as his only friend in fact wants nothing to do with him. When that long-overdue confrontation between Keith and Sandy finally takes place, the former snaps and goes off the deep end. By this point, the film resembles nothing more than “Keane,” Lodge Kerrigan’s uncompromising 2004 feature about a schizophrenic man frantically searching for a lost child who might be a figment of his imagination.

“Frownland” gradually induces a queasy feeling as we realize that Keith’s personality quirks may actually be manifestations of a chemical imbalance, or perhaps even mental disability. You then wonder whether you should have laughed earlier at his laborious attempts to connect to the world around him. The scary thing is, Keith is just like some people we might know, or at the very least brush shoulders with every day in the subway. We might not ordinarily give them a second thought, but “Frownland” burdens us with an idea of how unpleasant their lives must be. Mr. Bronstein has managed to come up with an absorbing little film under extremely limited circumstances. It will be interesting to see what he can one day do with a budget.

The New York Sun

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