If you’ve seen the aggressively-pleasant fiberglass head on the lead singer of the avant-garde band at the center of Frank, rest assured that’s merely the beginning. If you haven’t, don’t let the head scare you—it’s not as easy a punchline as it seems. Frank is only slightly concerned about the little ways in which we face the weirdness of the world and much more concerned about what happens when we give in.
Stomping joyfully down the line between comedy and tragedy, the pitch-black Frank benefits from a excellent, nimble cast. Michael Fassbender’s Frank is a performance so engaging that the head itself seems to take on an impossible expressiveness, a disconnect the movie occasionally trades on. As rookie-turned-puppetmaster Jon, Domhnall Gleeson gives an incisive performance that’s just as uncomfortable as it needs to be, and Maggie Gyllenhaal positively revels in the unforgiving thereminist Clara. It helps that their material makes the most of them. Frank’s screenplay is loosely based on scriptwriter Jon Ronson’s time as keyboard player for the Frank Sidebottom band—where the lead singer wore an awfully familiar fake head—but it ditches any rose-colored glasses for Gleeson’s deliciously mercenary arc. His descent into de facto manager of a band that rightfully hates him is alternately funny and grueling, and the slow build to inevitable artistic disaster makes for a fascinating journey.
However, the cringe humor and occasional cynicism wouldn’t be half as resonant without the film’s quiet heart and the hope of finding the world on your own terms at last. Frank is a ruthless but deeply felt look at music, identity and fame. And if you only see one movie this year that features an avant-garde band led by a man in a fiberglass head, please make it this one.