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REVIEW: Frank (Lenny Abrahamson – 2014)

How many job opportunities come about after someone has attempted suicide? Jon’s life is irreversibly changed when he notices cops attempting to convince a man trying to drown himself to get out of the water. It’s bloody cold for starters, given the location is freezing Ireland. He learns that this man is the keyboardist for the avant-garde outfit Soronprfbs and makes a joke that he can play keys too. He’s a frustrated musician, unable to write a good song that’s not reflecting his immediate surroundings (one pathetic line is “hey girl in the blue jacket do you know the girl in the red jacket.”). To his surprise, he becomes a fully-fledged member.

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That’s the basis behind Frank, the latest from director Lenny Abrahamson. The man behind Soronprfbs – a name that is pronounced surprisingly well in the film – is Frank, a “thirty to fifty year old man” who wears a huge papier-mâché cartoon mask over his head for almost the entire duration on account of a mental illness. He always wears this oversized head, even in the shower. (Food is consumed via a tube-like straw placed under the mask’s opening.) Jon is recruited to help them record their debut album somewhere in the Irish countryside. By the end his sole contribution is via funding, hilariously realised with the help

Inspired by the real life character of Frank Sidebottom, played by Chris Sievey to whom the film is dedicated, Frank is hardly a biopic. Instead, it plays out as an ode to the creative journey when one undertakes song writing, or creation in general. The character of Frank is similar to that of Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart, with a mix of whomever else you can relate it to. Given the music industry is full of freaks, it’s a simple job. If you’ve ever played in a band you’ll appreciate the great visual process of Frank attempting to inspire his band mates, with Jon on the weirded-out end of the scale played to precision by Dominic Gleeson.

Michael Fassbender as the titular masked man is in brilliant form. Considering he’s reduced to acting without a face he does an impeccably subtle job of it: nervousness is conveyed via fumbling with a lanyard; happiness is demonstrated through dancing with a complete stranger. The sheer pleasure that Frank wants to infect everyone around him with traverses most of the film, making it one of the most pleasurable experiences at the cinema all year. So much so that the final act feels out of place with characters falling apart and other goings on that I won’t spoil here. Despite that, he emerges from the shaky foundations even stronger.

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One of the very few annoying features of Frank is its use of the Internet, specifically twitter, as a tool for the band to become famous. It’s one of a few similarities to that of Jon Favreau’s Chef, another film regarding unrealised creative potential. In Chef, twitter is used to make the food truck famous and even comes complete with a how-to-twitter guide during an exchange between Chef Casper and his son. It’s displayed in a cutesy, cartoony manner that softens the regular blow. To its credit, Frank limits twitter to its aforementioned role of moving the plot forward and to push for laughs but it’s such an ugly presentation that I felt like I had to swipe it away, like an ad popup.

What’s Frank trying to achieve in all its oddball glory? It’s a simple ode to the creative process, whether that means being in a band or writing books or creating cinema. The creative process means un-shedding the mask that everyone places on you and finding that “corner,” as Frank puts it, where your inspiration is reborn into something new and not wholly derivative. It’s not an easy journey whatsoever and all the breakdowns are on display here to varying extremes. With that in mind, it is a straightforward rags to riches story (kinda) with a very similar structure to Chef. Though I doubt one influenced the other, given the release schedule for both, it makes for an interesting comparison. Where Chef ends up finding all the gold stars and saving the princess from Bowser, Frank makes the ultimate sacrifice for the betterment of the group. And it’s a better film for it. The final performance, a sobering moment for the characters involved, is captured so delicately I can’t help but continue to sing the chorus three hours later, tapping my feet to its infectious rhythm. “Fiddly digits, itchy britches, I love you all.”

[rating=4]

Nicholas Brodie – follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire

Frank is out in limited release June 19 and screening at the Sydney Film Festival – purchase tickets here.

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