SXSW Film Review – The Frontier
When characters sit down and hash out their problems, I ask myself two questions: 1) Why are they now confronting their issues? And 2) What compels them to stay instead of running away? The real world is filled with broken relationships and missed opportunities. More often the things we want to say never come out, leaving us with questions that are never answered. Films that feature characters talking things out can feel contrived if not handled properly. Luckily, Matt Rabinowitz’s The Frontier (2013) does not suffer from this. Here is a story where pasts are confronted in an organic way – it unfolds in a realistic fashion. There’s no unforeseen element forcing these people together, they’re there because they want to be.
That is its biggest strength. The characters are not stuck together against their will, but are present because of their desire to connect, even when they aren’t sure how to do that. Rabinowitz (who co-wrote the screenplay with Carlos Colunga) molds them with a level of uncertainty. They know how they feel but don’t know how to express it. Sometimes, it’ll be said in very few words, other times it’ll come spilling out in rage. False starts and passive-aggressive statements are made. One person will storm off in anger, but will try again because they’re mature enough to see the bigger picture. This is all done in the appropriate tone. When dealing with pain that has festered over years, no way can it all be dealt with in one scene. In this regard the filmmakers got it right.
Sean (Max Gail) is a retired literature professor and civic activist. Years ago, after a tragedy befell his family, Sean’s son Tennessee (Coleman Kelly) ran away from home. Sean continued his work, while Tennessee wandered the country, eventually ending up as a ranch hand. As the plot begins, the estranged son receives a letter from his father, resulting in Tennessee feeling the need to return home, despite his hesitancy. During this time, Sean is in the middle of working on his memoirs, yet has trouble getting his life organized enough to do so. He offers his personal trainer Nina (Anastassia Sendyk) – fresh off a breakup with her boyfriend – to stay at his place and help him write.
That is all there is to the story, the rest involves the interaction between these three people – each entering different stages in their life but all coming towards a crossroads. It’s interesting how Rabinowitz is able to pull this off, when a number of elements appear to dangle towards being inappropriate. The idea of a young woman accepting to live in the home of a person she barely knows (who is also much older than she is) doesn’t seem to work at first glance. Hints are made that Sean had a philandering history, helping to explain some of Tennessee’s ill will towards him and cautiousness towards Nina. In a lesser movie, Tennessee’s suspicions would be realized. Thankfully, that is not developed upon further than with a few pieces of dialogue. All three characters are smarter than that. Rather, the pressing matter is the relationship between father and son. Nina – for better or worse – is relegated as the one to bear witness.
Max Gail stands out as the performance to remember. While Coleman Kelly and Anastassia Sendyk are appearing in their first credited project (per IMDB), Gail has been a veteran of film and television for years. The experience shines through. He plays Sean as a man filled with contradictions. For his memoirs, Sean audio-records his thoughts about everything: life, death, politics, science, religion, etc. His ideas come out with the weight of someone who has minded over them for a long time. And yet, for as much as he talks to his recorder, he barely knows what to say when his son returns home. It’s the driving force carrying the plot: seeing Sean walk a tightrope with Tennessee, trying different approaches to reconcile. It’s a sad but strong acting showcase, heartfelt but never crossing into overbearing sentimentality.
Any problems that exist are minor and infrequent. A piece of dialogue here, the way another line is delivered there. While Kelly and Sendyk are relative newcomers, they do have an authentic nature about them. Many outsiders would see their living arrangement as strange, rightfully so. But Rabinowitz does a good job of making it believable. If there is a specific issue to be had, it would not be with the dynamic between Sean and Tennessee, but with Tennessee and Nina. Not enough time is used to develop their chemistry together. Because of that, where they end up does not pack the emotional punch needed to leave a lasting impression.
While The Frontier has a title that’s a bit heavy handed, the film itself is a mature look into the lives broken from pain and separation. It’s a slow burn because the wounds inflicted don’t heal quickly. Despite whatever rough edges it may have, the pieces come together to make a compelling whole.