Michael Fassbender plays Frank. Frank creates quirky noise music and he so happens to wear a cartoon mask, not just to make music, but all of the time. Some might consider him weird and enigmatic, others might consider him a genius. Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon. Jon lives at home with his parents and makes music in his home studio, but he is struggling with the inspiration to make something worthwhile. By some off chance fluke, Jon finds himself the keyboardist of Frank’s band, Soronfprbs. The band includes Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Don (the band’s manager played by Scoot McNairy), Nana (Autolux drummer Carla Azar), and Baraque (Francois Civil). Soronfprbs are an eccentric bunch. Clara is protectively closest to Frank, but is difficult and quick tempered at the best of times. Don has a dark past which includes making love to mannequins. Jon is out of his element when he involuntarily joins the group as it sequesters itself to record an album. No one questions Frank on the giant mask and while Jon finds it odd, he ends up going with it and the bands’ bizzare habits in an effort to improve himself as an artist.
Despite difficulties living with them, Jon records, uploads, and exposes the band unwittingly through social media. As the freakishness of the band becomes more outrageous, their popularity grows, and the band is offered a place at the SXSW Festival purely from Jon’s twitter and youtube exposure.
Frank’s character is inspired by a combination of people: Frank Sidebottom, a beloved character by British comic Chris Sievey and eccentric musicians like Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart. Artist like them thrive on insular projects without regard for their potential audience. Their non-conformist attitudes have little to do with self-consciousness, but rather have a lot to do with the worlds their brains inhabit. Frank is deeply into his music, creating it without any aspirations for anything beyond than what the band is: an aloof band of misfit friends who create art out of chaos when they aren’t at each other’s throats. Jon wants to inhabit that creative world, but instead of finding his muse, he opts to blanket himself in the colours of his bandmates thereby using their afflictions to his advantage.
Fassbender’s portrayal of Frank is expressive and hilariously honest despite the gigantic mask that obscures his face. Gyllenhaal plays Clara as an angry misanthrope and even though you want to hate her, you can’t help but want to know what’s behind all that misdirected anger. There’s a great manipulative ploy in her performance here.
Abrahamson‘s direction contrasts the social media/hipster world of superficial originality with that of the insane mystic who lives entirely in their imagination than outside of it. Gonzo journalist Jon Ronson co-wrote the script out of his experiences playing with Frank Sidebottom and it is the view we get through Jon’s (the film’s Jon) eyes. The film attempts to balance Jon’s perspective (seeing Frank as a magical demented genius) versus Frank’s reality (his creativity is his only means of navigating or surviving the real world). There’s hilarity in the film’s absurdity and there’s a great drama at its heart. Thus, the ending for me is a fortunate circumstance, and some might see it as tragic, but I only saw the comfort in it. It’s not a neatly packaged fair, but it’s a beautiful take on how we should deal with the mentally ill.
I don’t see this film getting much of a release, but it’s definitely indie fare. We idealize originality and talent, but blind ourselves to the sadness and unconventional perspectives that bring out spontaneity in what we admire. The mentally ill might make the sane see an otherworldly meaning to their lives, but they aren’t inspiration fodder. They’re people that not only deserve our appreciation, but most of all, our respect for surviving in this off kilter world.