Stories are about conflict. Good stories use conflict to engage the viewer and reveal truths, not just about characters who inhabit the narrative, but also about the world at large. The Frontier is not one of these films. The Frontier recently had its world premiere at South by Southwest as part of the Narrative Spotlight series, which seems wrong, or at least ironic, because a narrative is exactly what the film lacks.
The film opens on Sean (Max Gail), a retired literature professor and practicing alcoholic, who writes his estranged son, Tennessee (Coleman Kelly), asking him to come home. When Tennessee begrudgingly returns home, he finds the spare bedroom occupied by Nina (Anastassia Sendyk), a young woman who has agreed to help turn Sean’s dictated ramblings into a book. The three form a family of sorts, as Nina attempts to help Sean and Tennessee reconcile their differences. The setup is familiar, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that the film systematically refuses to hold any tension.
The Frontier inflates its first act with a lot of narrative potential. A return home is inherently tense, having to reconcile who you were when you left and who you are now. But no attempt is made to capitalize or build on this premise. Tennessee’s call to come home is nothing more than a request that he decides to accept, suggesting that despite his anger at his father, he is ready to bury the hatchet. There is no obstacle to overcome, just vague childish angst and an equally vague insinuation that Sean did some philandering back in the day. Sean, Tennessee, and Nina are on the verge of their emotional catharses within the first fifteen minutes of the film.
No attempt is made to keep this half-ounce of tension at a boil. There’s nothing at play here that can’t be solved with a couple of drinks and an apology, and nearly all the conflict is resolved a little more than halfway through the film’s 89 minute running time. The remainder is filled with idle conversation, some pretty time-lapse photography, and a game of Wii tennis that goes on way longer than it has any right to. The Frontier is betting not on its story, but on the chemistry and acting chops of the film’s stars: Max Gail, Coleman Kelly, and Anastassia Sendyk. Unfortunately, while all three turn in serviceable performances, no one is up to the task of keeping this sinking ship afloat.
Max Gail is given the most to work with, delivering half-philosophical, pseudo-literary monologues that sounds like a mixture of sage advice and narration from a Levi’s commercial. There’s energy in his performance and it’s appreciated. The cast is rounded out by two newcomers: Coleman Kelly, and Anastassia Sendyk. Kelly fills the role of Tennessee primarily with an impressively full beard. However, it’s difficult to find fault with Kelly; you can’t fill a gallon’s worth of performance into a thimble-sized character. Sendyk is lively as Nina, but delivers her most convincing lines in her native Russian. It’s ultimately impossible to judge these first performances, as they’re handicapped with a script that gives them so few problems and so little to do about them. Still, Kelly’s beard is quite impressive.
The Frontier is helmed by first time director Matt Rabinowitz, who penned the script with another first time writer, Carlos Colunga. While the filmmaking is competent, there is a sad lack of voice. The film is primarily confined to Sean’s house, but the containment doesn’t build a sense of tension or intimacy. Instead it feels like the film is belling against the constraints of its budget. Which is unfortunate, because with precious little to look at, there is little to draw attention away from the script. In his attempt to make a film about the universal themes of family and redemption, Rabinowitz has created something impossibly generic. It feels cobbled together from the ideas of other films.
The Verdict: 1 out of 5
The Frontier is not a bad film. It commits a sin greater than that. It’s boring. Films don’t need explosions and car chases to be interesting. In fact, films with such enticements only succeed when they also provide an emotionally stimulating and satisfying story. The Frontier fails on a fundamental storytelling level. Rabinowitz film did not have a chance to fail on the screen. It was already dead on the page.