The relationship between man and machine is explored with new levels of intimacy in this charming Sundance-winning film.
Every year, the Alfred P. Sloan Prize is given out at the Sundance Film Festival for “independent film projects that explore science and technology themes or that depict scientists, engineers and mathematicians in engaging and innovative ways”. This year, it couldn’t have been given to two more different films. On one hand, there was Musa Syeed’s insightful, tender and beautiful Valley of Saints, a film set during a time of civil turmoil in northern India. Then there’s Robot and Frank, the debut film of Jack Schreier, one that explores the relationship between an ageing man and his robotic assistant. Yet it shares many of the same qualities as its Sundance stablemate, offering a rare glimpse into the more tender spots of the human psyche.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Robot and Frank is a film that is entirely within the realms of possibility. Ageing ex-con and former cat burglar Frank (Frank Langella) lives alone in his remote home, but is increasingly suffering the effects of dementia and general befuddlement. Tired of making the trip up to the mountains every week, his son Hunter (James Marsden) gives him a robotic companion (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) designed to aid in his rehabilitation and household maintenance. Resentful of the robot at first, Frank comes to grow used to his companionship and begins his own regimen of mental stimulation with his new house-mate. Falling back on old cat burgling habits, his regular patterns of behaviour are disrupted when the local library is being “reimagined” by a young hipster (Jeremy Strong), forcing him to act on his feelings for the local librarian (Susan Sarandon).
Like Lars and the Real Girl or The Beaver before it, Robot and Frank is less about the object than what that thing reveals about the person who interacts with it. The film is actually simple in its setup, and taking out the high-concept of the central relationship, the film is firmly rooted in character-based drama. Almost structured like a ‘coming of age’ film, except at the extreme opposite end of the scale, the joy is in watching Frank open up to his new friend. Likewise, while the ‘not too distant future’ setting makes this technically science fiction, this is firmly a nostalgic piece. Indeed, were it not for the future setting, this is a story that could take place at any time or place.
Langella’s performance is understated, but wonderfully crafted. Avoiding the all-too-often excessive takes on dementia, his is filled with moments of clarity and forgetfulness that exhibits in other ways: repetition, the holding of cutlery in awkward ways and displacement of time. For anybody who has ever watched a loved one slip into dementia, it is heartbreaking, more so as his relationship with Susan Sarandon plays out. James Marsden and Liv Tyler as Frank’s children both give terrific performances as well, but they are little more than cameos. Peppered with liberal doses of good-natured humour, the core relationship is the one between man and machine, and you will believe a robot can care.
Robot and Frank is released in Australia on 15 November 2012 from Sony.