A sustained encounter with a disturbed personality, Frownland is nothing like a conventional comedy. But funny moments are the engine of this extraordinary 16 mm film, capable of mounding observations together into something like an experience, of turning repulsion so far inside out that it starts to feel like empathy.
(The origins of this tiny-budget film are unusual, too. It's the first film of a full-time projectionist, starring a nonactor who is a distant relation the director met at a family funeral.)
As the film opens, Keith (Dore Mann), a greasy, disheveled heap of a New Yorker, is eating popcorn and eggs in his bedroom, which is also his kitchen, and watching a late-night creature feature in which a furious monster crushes a violin with his hands. The analogy between Keith and the monster is obvious, but until another human being shows up—a blubbering high-school student (Mary Wall) who might be his girlfriend—you have no idea how far it goes.
Keith works as a door-to-door coupon-book salesman, possibly the worst job ever for a guy who can barely string two sentences together, much less look a customer in the eye. When he tries to apologize for some slight to his boss, it's clear that the apology—and the apology for the apology ("It's like a troll," he explains, referring to himself, "comes out of the water and starts pouring garbage on you")—is much worse than the original offense.
Packed with vertiginous close-ups, Frownland doesn't mock Keith alone for long. There are too many other freaks in the world, from a compulsively irresponsible roommate to a would-be LSAT instructor spewing polysyllabic bullshit and filching other people's toys. By the time the film returns to its disheveled antihero, you no longer have the will to keep him at arm's length. Keith's final descent feels as tragic as Lear's.