'The Frontier': Film Review
Max Gail, Coleman Kelly and Anastassia Sendyk co-star in Matt Rabinowitz’s uneasy family drama
Actor and first-time feature director Matt Rabinowitz’s intense focus on a fragile father-son relationship makes for unexceptional developments in The Frontier, an insubstantial low-budget ensembler. A series of festival laurels suggests that an audience exists somewhere for the film, perhaps among the narrative averse.
Rabinowitz’s film concerns retired literature professor Sean Sullivan (Max Gail), lonely, angry and bitter as he contemplates his own mortality. Following the death of his wife 20 years previous, his son Sean (who goes by his middle name, Tennessee) left home with the clear intention of not returning. Now working as a ranch hand in Northern California, Tennessee (Coleman Kelly) receives a pleading letter from his estranged father asking him to make a visit, so with due trepidation, he sets out for the LA area and a much belated reunion. At the same time, Sean has hired his personal trainer Nina (Anastassia Sendyk) to become his editorial assistant on the book that he’s working on and invites her to move into his home following her breakup with a boyfriend. When he arrives at Sean’s, Tennessee finds Nina well-ensconced, taking notes and transcribing his father’s dictation for a vaguely conceived memoirs.
Sean is fond of pontificating, which he does frequently in voiceover throughout the film, as well as spouting his self-aggrandized opinions to both Nina and his son. It takes about a day before Tennessee has had his fill of Sean’s lecturing and begins finding busy work around the house, keeping himself occupied with various fix-it chores. Sean knows Tennessee is avoiding him and hounds his son for an explanation, which only results in several fairly vocal disagreements. Their antipathy grows to the point that Nina decides the only solution is to force the two to sit down and talk things out uninterrupted, so she sets them up with a bottle of whiskey one evening and makes herself scarce, hoping they can reach some kind of reconciliation.
It’s not necessarily a favorable observation that Rabinowitz and co-writer Carlos Colunga have given Gail (who played Stan Wojciehowicz on the “Barney Miller” sitcom) all the necessary personality tics to make Sean off-putting enough to prompt just about anyone to want to leave home. Although sometimes eloquent and apparently heartfelt, his frequent speechifying and declamatory readings from Walt Whitman’s works don’t do much to illuminate his uneasy relationship with his son. It’s a bit of a relief that Kelly doesn’t rise to the same level of vitriolic expertise, but of course the complication with their relationship is that they’re far too much alike. Their shared affinity for alcohol further complicates their inability to communicate, but that's an issue that goes glaringly unrecognized.
Although the film is essentially a two-hander, Sendyk frequently intervenes in Sean and Tennessee’s running battles, although for reasons that remain inadequately explained, just as her fairly predictable love affair with Tennessee develops without real justification. Rabinowitz demonstrates a similar directorial indifference, shooting the film in a mostly functional style and relying on numerous montages to replace narrative development and fill out the running time.
Production company: It’s Terrific Pictures
Cast: Max Gail, Coleman Kelly, Anastassia Sendyk, Katherine Cortez, Oliver Seitz
Director: Matt Rabinowitz
Screenwriters: Matt Rabinowitz, Carlos Colunga
Producer: Jeffry A. DeCola
Executive producer: Elliot Roberts
Director of photography: Adam CK Vollick
Production designer: Eleanor White
Costume designer: Eleanor White
Editor: Tim Mirkovich
Music: Jason Yates
No rating, 89 minutes