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Originally published Friday, June 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Frownland": A human train wreck waiting to happen

"Frownland" could easily be mistaken as a minor classic from the hazy, meandering aesthetic of the independent film movement in the 1960s...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Frownland," with Dore Mann, Mary Wall, Paul Grimstad, David Sandholm. Written and directed by Ronald Bronstein. 106 minutes. Not rated; contains some swearing and a scene at a drunken party. Northwest Film Forum.

"Frownland" could easily be mistaken as a minor classic from the hazy, meandering aesthetic of the independent film movement in the 1960s and early '70s. It's impossible to watch this grotty, sometimes unbearably undisciplined yet genuinely tragic movie and not think about the first films directed by John Cassavetes and Paul Morrissey.

Written, directed and edited by Ronald Bronstein, and shot on 16-mm film (blown up to 35 mm for maximum grunginess), "Frownland" is literally — through its tongue-tied, tic-driven anti-hero — at a loss for words to explain itself.

Keith (Dore Mann) is a walking disaster as a human being. Always an inch from an apoplectic rage that doesn't arrive until late in the story, communication-challenged Keith is watching his life unravel in many small ways.

Laura (Mary Wall), a sobbing wreck of a friend (or ex-girlfriend, or former colleague, or something — we don't know and don't really need to know), collapses in Keith's New York City apartment. Unresponsive to his bungling, babbling efforts to comfort her, Laura spends a chaste night on Keith's bed getting a rash from his down-filled pillow.

Meanwhile, Keith's tense relationships with an exasperated roommate (Paul Grimstad) and out-of-patience acquaintance (David Sandholm) also have long, unrevealed backstories. But, again, it doesn't matter, as this poor sap's accelerating disintegration, like a house on fire, doesn't require explanations.

Without milking the audience for pity or compassion, Bronstein yields both by honestly portraying a character suffering a small but profound dilemma: Keith has intelligence and adult emotions, but is functionally a child.

"Frownland" is a succession of take-it-or-leave-it moments defining the parameters of Keith's life while stoking his despair. Which really means the film wanders within a broad, situational framework, proving exhausting when Bronstein veers off with a substory about the roommate's job search.

Despite circuitous storytelling, "Frownland" leads us exactly where Bronstein wants us: watching a powerful end-credits scene in which the raw humanity of Keith's ill fit with the world is nothing less than staggering.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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