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SXSW 14 Review: 'Frank,' a quirky, hilarious comedy about mental illness and the nature of art

The most meta film of SXSW provides an incredible portrait of a band defined by mental illness, insecurity and unwavering artistic drive.

Magnolia Pictures

The concept of exploring the nature what constitutes "art" and what comes when a band attempts to find an audience and essentially sells out in the pursuit of fame, and what that pressure can do to a group of individual artists, is certainly nothing new when it comes to film. Lenny Abrahamson's Frank, written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, takes this conceit and turns it on it's head -- almost literally -- in an exploration about the nature of mental illness and the lengths we go to in order to hide our own insecurities and inhibitions.

Frank follows the misadventures of the indie band Soronprfbs and told through the eyes and ears of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) , an aspiring songwriter and keyboardist whose grand ambition is miles ahead of any actual talent he possesses. When he comes across the band's keyboardist attempting to drown himself in the ocean; Jon mentions he can play keyboards, and suddenly he's whisked away to an isolated cabin to spend the next year recording the band's first album.

At the head of the band is Frank, an incredibly charismatic and talented musician whose musical taste ranges far outside the mainstream; the band spends months perfecting the sounds of handmade instruments while also recording the sounds of a boot splashing in the mud. The fake head that Frank wears never comes off and the only person concerned with what is underneath is Jon, who unknowingly becomes the villain of the story by the end of the film.

There's a point near the beginning of Frank where Don, the band's manager (Scoot McNairy) tells new keyboardist Jon that when it comes to the giant, fake papier-mâché head worn by the eponymous character, "You just have to go with it." It's a great way to describe the film itself, which is full of quirky hipster personalities and characters, including a drummer and guitarist who spend most of the movie scowling at Jon. The music itself is raucous and wholly unintelligible at times, despite Jon's attempts to turn their ear towards more "mainstream" fare.

Maggie Gyllenhall adds another wacky character to her filmography with Clara, a dark and brooding keyboardist who seems perfectly content with playing to near-empty bars in the rural Texas towns rather than actually becoming famous. She hates Jon from the start and senses that in the end he will be the band's undoing, and provides the foundation that keeps Frank centered on his music rather than the madness that makes him keep that fake head on his shoulders.

The film is full of great performances yet it is Michael Fassbender as Frank who truly shines in a role that keeps his well-known mug off screen and hidden behind the fake head. The movie treats Frank with incredible empathy, and Fassbender brings Frank to life through an incredible feat of physical acting that gives personality to an expressionless mask. Fassbender provides the heart and soul of the film, while also delivering an incredible vocal and musical performance that will have many putting his name at the top of the list should Hollywood decide to make another Jim Morrison biopic.

Director Lenny Abrahamson does a magnificent job of balancing the incredible meta nature of the film (which has scenes at SXSW in Austin) and a deeper exploration of the nature of mental illness and how art can provide a way to work past it. Keyboardist Jon, who grew up in a quiet suburb in England and worked in a cubicle, laments several times throughout about the lack of trauma in his life that obviously provides the inspiration for those around him. Several bandmembers, including Frank and the band's manager, spent time in their previous life in mental institutions and there's an undercurrent theme of suicide that runs throughout the film as well.

This isn't a movie for everyone; the narration is told through onscreen graphics of Jon's tweets and his Tumblr blog kept throughout the film. The music in un-listenable at times -- which is the point -- yet also showcases the underlying genius that drives these artists forward. The final third of the movie takes a wild turn that may lose the audience for a bit, yet comes full circle with a hauntingly beautiful musical number that ends the film on an incredible high.

In the end, Frank is a film that will grab you if for no other reason that a masterful performance from Michael Fassbender who provides an astounding and uplifting portrait of a man haunted by his own mental illness yet freed from those confines through the power of his own musical genius.