95 min., rated R.
Irish director Lenny Abrahamson's "Frank" marches to a different drummer. That much is objectively true. Subjectively, it is a film whose original charms gradually grow on the viewer, but it's probably only going to engage those with open, unusual tastes for the initially creepy hook of the ruggedly handsome Michael Fassbender wearing a fake, globe-sized head with painted-on features that of a cartoon. Taken from a memoir by "The Men Who Stare at Goats" author Jon Ronson and written by Ronson and Peter Straughan ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), the film is an odd duck, wholly offbeat, often strangely wonderful and sneakily heartbreaking, loosely based on cult comic/musician Chris Sievey, the frontman for punk-rock band The Freshies who might be better remembered as Frank Sidebottom. In the wrong hands, a film named after such an oddball character could turn him into a disconnected, literally faceless joke, but there are actual shadings of melancholy here that make "Frank" as unique and conspicuously unconventional as the music Frank and his band members create.
Before we even meet Frank, the viewer follows Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). He's a bored nine-to-fiver and aspiring songwriter who perpetually uses social media to announce every banal activity, including when he gets an idea for a song. One day, Jon happens to run into The Soronprfbs, an avant-garde band, on the beach when their mentally ill keyboardist tries drowning himself. The loner thinks he just might have found his first big break when he takes a gig from the band's manager, Don (Scoot McNairy), to be their replacement keyboard player. After experiencing the tortured soul of Frank (Michael Fassbender), the affable frontman who refuses to take off his papier-mâché head mask, and his on-stage shenanigans that cut the show early, Jon is invited to go off and stay in a lakeside Irish cottage to record an album with his new band. While standoffish, off-putting theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) doesn't want the band to be publically noticed and is overprotective of Frank, as are drummer Nana (Carla Azar) and French bassist Baraque (Francois Civil), Jon secretly posts videos of them on YouTube in hopes of getting a bigger gig at South by Southwest. Little by little, the former outsider is still on the outside with The Soronprfbs, but not Frank, who has a lot going on inside that inner head. Will the band rise or will they sell out?
Despite the title, "Frank" is really Jon's journey, and what a unique journey it is, even if the film is never in a rush to get where it wants to go. Having proven his star quality in "About Time," Domhnall Gleeson provides a charming, soulful everyman stance to the part of Jon, the real protagonist. The character's initial naiveté would seem to frustrate some, but as we remain on the outside with Jon, the viewer gains more of an understanding of where he's coming from. There is also a warmth between Jon's burgeoning friendship with Frank that would be hard to miss. Let's not ignore the elephant in the room, though. Michael Fassbender might give one of the year's most bravely inspired and delicately moving performances, all because he plays a character with a big, papier-mâché head on top of his real head. Even without a real face, the actor conveys the character's fragility and nervous tics, dubious temperament and a sense of comfort and protection from the world with his makeshift head; it even prevents any chance of the actor ever mugging, not that a chameleonic actor of Fassbender's stature would ever resort to such desperation. In support, Scoot McNairy is unexpectedly touching as entourage manager Don, and Maggie Gyllenhaal nearly invents deadpan volatility with her drolly acerbic delivery as the blistering Clara.
At face value, "Frank" is the sort of film that would be adored at festivals—it was a hit when it premiered at Sundance this year—or written off for being too in love with its own quirky badge of "I'm Different." Consider the film a gem, then, when something so incredibly weird and absurdist can take chances, be hard to categorize, and still affect the viewer's core in some way or another. Director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan have something to say about the lines of art and commerce, as well as genius and insanity, and wrap both comments into a bizarro road picture that carves its own tonally controlled route with dark, sometimes broad humor and dark, sad character layers. Even the original music by Stephen Rennicks and performed by "The Soronprfbs" is perfect for niche audiences into performance art. The film might be wrong to suggest that mental illness can be such a wacky, eccentric pretension, but it soon evades those surface trappings. Like how the masked Frank starts describing his facial expressions to Jon, "Frank" offers smiles, sad faces, and sometimes even a delighted look.