In Life After Beth, teen protagonist Zach takes his undead girlfriend to the beach for a moonlit concert. He strums earnestly on his guitar about the night and his beloved, and gets about halfway through a verse before she snaps at him to shut up, snarling that the song is terrible. It’s the first sign that something’s wrong with her. In Frank, also out this week, protagonist Jon mentions that he dabbles in songwriting himself, and when hostile band member Clara demands he perform a song immediately, he does, grinding through a handful of abortive attempts at opening verses, despite a look on his face that tells us everything we need to know about his dearth of talent. It’s the first sign that something’s wrong with him.
The two films share almost nothing else: It’s a fleeting moment for one movie and a crucial turning point for the other, and Life After Beth fumbles through half a dozen tones, while Frank relies heavily on its iron grip on the mood of the room. Still, it’s a rare thing to see a musical performance interrupted not by a plot point, but by the revulsion of its intended audience—and for Frank in particular, it raises important points about how best to watch it.
Some people will need the help, since watching Frank is not necessarily a pleasant experience. This particular performance scene might be one of the most excruciating on screens this summer, but it’s not alone. There’s an awful lot of time spent inside Jon’s head, from his Twitter updates to his songwriting attempts, and as Jon grows less bearable, he becomes both funnier and more terrifying to behold. But there’s also a comforting narrative distance throughout much of the film, as if attempting to protect us from the full exhaustion of so many intense people trapped in a cabin and rehearsing day and night. For the bulk of the film, as they record their next album, we often drop in on them for staccato bursts of emotional dysfunction and skip out just as quickly. But part of its success as a dark comedy is its earnest investment in its lead characters, which gives us a reason to follow them—and even more, to believe in them. (Clara is really intense. That theremin riff is probably killer, right?) And that belief is crucial, given that, at heart, Frank is a fable about how mediocrity is the death of art, and fame is the death of integrity.
There’s an inevitability attached to people who love a thing, declaring they knew about it before it was cool; if you love enough things, it’s just a numbers game. That actor you like will eventually end up all over Tumblr. That band you like will have a song on The Vampire Diaries. And there’s no small value in recognizing and judging something for what it is. Streets of Fire is by no means a great film, and if you expect one, you’re in for a dire 90 minutes. But if you need a post-apocalyptic rockabilly musical action flick, you’re not going to find a better one—and realizing the world might actually need that is probably a mark of pop-culture wisdom. Much of Frank’s dramatic tension comes from the disconnect between what’s artistically possible and what’s artistically likely. (They’d all hate Streets of Fire.)
Still, while we can all safely decry the franchise-grubbing and box-office pandering of the new TMNT and Transformers, there’s a vast dark ocean of art in which it’s easy to get lost. Frank’s last act gently questions the objective judgment of the quality of art—if it fulfills you, it must count—but it’s the suggestion of a movie that knows it’s a consolation prize given to people we like too much to leave unhappy. For this movie, only overwhelming focus and aggressive outsiderness produce pure art. The rest is a marketing ploy. It knows the band before it got cool.