Posted September 18, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Indie Dramedy

Frank: Indie Dramedy about Music and Mental Illness

Frank is a lovable but flawed dramedy about an avant-garde noise-rock band fronted by a musical genius named Frank, who may or may not be mentally ill.

While it has many weaknesses, Frank has moments of uncommon tenderness and warmth that you will probably remember for a long time. Many of the characters are vulnerable, frightened souls struggling to survive the everyday brutality of mainstream society. In quite a number of ways, they resemble the lost sheep in Harmony Korine’s under-seen and under-rated Mister Lonely (2008).

The eponymous frontman, played sensitively by Michael Fassbender, only has the courage to face the world when he’s wearing a mask. Well, it’s more than a mask. It’s an entire fake head with gigantic, wide-open eyes painted on it. He never takes it off, sleeping, eating and bathing with it on.

Fassbender spends 90% of the film with this thing on his head, delivering lines from underneath it. You can hear him surprisingly well, thank heavens. It is remarkable the degree to which Fassbender is able to convey personality despite having his face completely hidden. He does a wonderful job, despite seeming a bit too old for the role.

The narrator is not Frank, however. It is a soft-spoken, doe-eyed boy named Jon (played very nicely by Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson). Jon gets caught up in the emotional and artistic maelstrom of the band very quickly, after meeting them in a chance encounter on the street.

Before he knows what’s hit him, he is whisked away to a cabin in the woods in a remote corner of Ireland, where he spends an entire year with them, composing and recording an album that has the makings of a rock masterpiece à la the Velvet Underground or Sonic Youth.

The band is sonically adventurous, recording myriad sounds from nature and household objects and using those sounds in unique and powerful ways. There is quite a bit of fantastic, hypnotic music in Frank.

The band’s name is SORONPRFBS, which no one in the band knows how to pronounce. Something about the unpronounceability of it struck me as quite cool, as if to convey that they are inventing a new form of language.

Unbeknownst to the band, Jon regularly records video of their rehearsals and misadventures and posts them on YouTube, building up an online following for the band. Because of this, they are invited to play at South by Southwest in America.

Jon is overjoyed by the invitation, but everyone else in the band is gravely concerned. Something about interacting with the larger world brings stresses that threaten to destroy the band and the individuals in it. The festival also causes the question of the fake noggin to come to a head. Are audiences going to accept it? What is the real reason the singer wears it?

Jon thinks the band members are just lovable eccentrics like himself. But their problems turn out to be far greater than his. There’s quirkiness, and then there’s mental illness. Jon’s realization of this distinction becomes the central drama and the most meaningful aspect of the film. The first half of the film contains a good amount of comedy. The second half grows more serious, when the true signs of mental illness begin to show.

On the verge of the trip to South by Southwest, a shocking tragedy occurs, the details of which I won’t reveal. I will say that it shifts the movie in a much darker and heavier direction. This tragedy is also remarkably reminiscent of a dramatic turn that occurs in Korine’s Mister Lonely. Are the numerous parallels with that film just a coincidence?


Frank and Jon are fully realized characters brought to life well (at times beautifully) by Fassbender and Gleeson. The other band members, however, suffer from extremely trite characterization. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character and performance are particularly bad, threatening to make the film a silly joke time and time again.

Her character starts to make more sense at the very end of the film. She’s Frank’s protector and the band’s second in command. Without her, Frank would never be able to make his startling music. She interprets his odd gestures and vague inklings and helps to give them musical shape.

But through most of the film, she’s not much more than comic relief — and the comedy is not very funny. When she stabs another character about 70% of the way through the film, I was ready to give up on Frank. The drama was over the top and false too often. Gyllenhaal, who like Fassbender was a bit too old for her role, really never found a comprehensible heart to the character.

The person at least partly responsible for this has to be the director, Lenny Abrahamson. One suspects he pushed Gyllenhaal not to play the character realistically. The problem is that he couldn’t help her find a way to do this in a compelling way. Comedy does not appear to be Gyllenhaal’s forte, but I have to hand it to her for trying. She’s such a fearless actress, always trying new things. [Incidentally, if you have never seen her stunning performance in Laurie Collyer‘s woefully under-seen Sherrybaby (2006), you are really missing out. Gyllenhaal is best in very serious drama.]

Abrahamson brings a young vibe to his direction, but this Irish director is actually almost 50. He has had some difficulty breaking onto the world stage. Frank is his fourth feature film. His previous one, What Richard Did (2013), was his first to get American distribution. Frank will surely bring him to a new level of renown.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.