Patron Request: ‘Frank’

If my Letterboxd rating is anything to go on, I actually liked Frank a bit more on rewatch than I did back in 2014. Only a bit, though. I also found aspects of it more troubling than I did five years ago. It’s not a very good film. But it’s the sort of film where I can very clearly see all the directions where it could have gone disastrously wrong, and didn’t. That’s something I can’t help but find myself appreciating.

It’s a story of eye-roll-inducing familiarity. A true outsider artist and his compatriots are tempted to sand the edges off their work for the sake of mainstream recognition by an ambitious new addition to their crew. In this case, though, the film takes on the perspective of that ambitious new addition. It follows Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon from his initial awe at the impossibly unique creative energies of Michael Fassbender’s Frank and his band to his eventual destruction of it through pushing them to change their sound in advance of a SXSW gig. It’s interesting, in theory, to watch as Jon’s desire to be liked by his new bandmates devolves into a desire to be liked by a widespread fanbase. The film does a decent job of seeding this idea from the beginning, with Jon facetiously bragging to his 18 Twitter followers all about the songs he’s “writing.” He’s clearly, from the beginning, a guy who cares more about being liked by as many people as possible than about making something personally meaningful. I quite liked the film’s handling of his arc, thin as it was at times. I especially liked that Frank hands its ending over to the reconciliation of the people Jon screwed, leaving Jon nothing to do but walk away. The film has a generous spirit that way.

Where things fall apart, and they do, is in the way the film deals with the subject of mental illness. I suppose it’s not all disastrous. The explanation for Frank’s insistence on wearing a big head at all times isn’t much of an explanation at all. There’s no deep dark trauma in his childhood that made him this way. It’s just how he’s always been. Jon and others have fun mythologizing Frank because of his outre appearance, but there’s no secret history here. He’s just Frank. The willingness to let someone’s mental health just be a part of them, without narrativized explication, is absolutely a good thing.

The problem is in the way the film treats “mental illness” as a nebulous concept and not an umbrella term. Frank “has mental illness” because of his head thing. Another bandmate, Don, “has it” because he used to have sex with mannequins. Jon brazenly assumes Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara is mentally ill because….she’s a little mean, I guess? It doesn’t conceptualize mental illness as anything beyond “a thing you have or are that makes you kooky.” It makes the film shallow and borderline offensive. Frank has nothing of value to say about mental illness. In fact, it has nothing to say at all. It’s just a term to be bandied about to add a little gravitas to the characters’ quirkiness. It’s a truly terrible approach.

Still, I can’t help but admit that it could have been much, much worse. Frank is fine. It only ever toes the line in its most dangerous aspects. It’s not a good film. But was it ever going to be? I think when you’re working with such a tired premise, this might be as close to greatness as it’s possible to get. It’s sort of commendable that they made it this far. Perhaps this is too generous of me. But I’m a generous girl.

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