The strangest thing about Frank, a film which Michael Fassbender spends almost exclusively wearing a giant mask over his face, is how un-strange it is. As playful as it is, Lenny Abrahamson’s film is mostly a surprisingly earnest story about the compromises and conflicts of art, stardom, and mental illness.

The film opens with aspiring musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who yearns to leave behind his comfortably uneventful life. When he comes across a man trying to drown himself on a beach one day, it turns out that this is the keyboardist for a small, touring experimental-rock band. Now they need a keyboardist, and Jon can play the three chords requested.

The band is led by Frank (Fassbender), who spends all his time inside the aforementioned mask. A pumpkin-size, papier-mâché Playskool face, with a little vent nestled into the side. Frank never takes off the mask. None of his bandmates have ever seen Frank without it. The band’s music is aggressive, loud, and atonal. But Frank is clearly troubled, too: He actually has a medical certificate allowing him to wear his mask at all times.

Frank, which is based loosely on the experiences of British performer Chris Sievey, a.k.a. Frank Sidebottom, eventually settles into a tale of competing artistic impulses, about the need for self-expression versus the need for fame. We know, of course, that great art is often created by troubled individuals. But Frank isn’t quite about that. Rather, it’s about the paradox of fame, about the fact that those who find it are often the ones least able to handle it, and about the small ecosystems of enablers and protectors and abusers and hangers-on that often come with art and success.

Fassbender turns out to be strangely perfect for the part. He can work wonders with his sheer physical presence. It’s a beautiful performance, and it makes this weirdly sincere and gentle film memorable.


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