Over the last few years, the likes of “Swiss Army Man,” “Time Out of Mind,” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” have established Miranda Bailey as one of the boldest and most forward-thinking producers in contemporary indie cinema. The films that she’s helped shepherd into the world run the gamut from deranged fart comedies to unflinching social dramas, but all of them are bound together by a radical sense of empathy and a refusal to judge their characters (that latter treat being especially appreciated at a time when many viewers approach movies as though everyone in them were on trial).
A sweet if styleless throwback that tries to milk a few sad laughs from the story of a teenager who discovers that his dad is parenting a second family on the side, Bailey’s narrative feature debut may not hold a candle to the work that she’s produced for other directors, but “Being Frank” (née “You Can Choose Your Family”) still manages to reaffirm what makes her such an essential voice in an increasingly restrictive space. Even when the movie feels like a sweatily-plotted sitcom that’s structured like a Ponzi scheme and criminally wastes its cast (which is often!), it dares to challenge the basic moral coding that most audiences bring with them into something like this; it dares to remind people that real life is never as black-and-white as we like to pretend it is from the cheap seats.
“Being Frank” never really announces that it’s set in the early ’90s, but the biggest giveaway isn’t the lack of cell phones or Alex Karpovsky’s mullet or even the nauseating Color Me Badd needle drop so much as the film’s overall domestic flavor. From the opening scene, in which a controlling dad gives his 18-year-old son a hard time about a summer job, the movie is nostalgic for the kind of pre-digital suburban domesticity where everything was more or less what it seemed to be (and it was a very big deal if it wasn’t). Frank (Jim Gaffigan) is a bit of a hardass, and for reasons that are initially unclear he won’t let Philip (Logan Miller, blending a floppy Michael Angarano look with a precocious “Risky Business” vibe) go to NYU in the fall. Frank tells his kid that he’s “not ready for New York City,” but Frank hasn’t the foggiest idea what Philip is prepared to handle.
He learns that lesson the hard way when Philip discovers that his dad’s regular “business trips to Japan” are actually a front for Frank to spend time with his second family a bit further north along the Hudson. It’s the kind of information that can turn a kid’s entire world upside down, and the script — which is credited to Glen Lakin, but has Bailey’s fingerprints all over it — isn’t afraid to send Philip reeling. Quick to figure out his father’s situation, but still disoriented to the point where he can only make bad decisions, Philip essentially blackmails Frank with his biggest secret; he won’t tattle to his mom (“Breaking Bad” star Anna Gunn) or Frank’s other wife (Samantha Mathis) if his dad writes him a tuition check for NYU.
All they’ve gotta do is get through the rest of this long summer weekend without Frank’s second family discovering that Philip isn’t really the son of an elusive family friend, a task that grows considerably more complicated as the lies pile up and knot together. It also doesn’t help that Philip’s oblivious half-sister is developing a crush on him (Kelly is played by excellent newcomer Isabelle Phillips, whose affectless performance roots her otherwise absurd character in a grounded and natural place), or that the stoner (Karpovsky) Frank ropes in to complete the illusion is too high to help out.
A character-driven period comedy built on a lie but still hinging on the indivisible truth that we’re all just doing the best we can, “Being Frank” is the kind of movie that people don’t really make anymore; it’s the kind of low budget, low stakes, low energy piffle that tends to be born directly into the burial plot that Netflix has reserved for it.
To an extent, the film’s general flatness almost feels like the price that Bailey had to pay in order to get this thing financed in the first place. You want to tell a somewhat grounded story that sympathizes with a pathologically adulterous husband and the kid who tries to use his dad’s shittiness to his own advantage? In this economy? Well, it’s gonna have to look like a basic cable show, wear its period details like a cheap fanny pack (a non-representative but cringe-worthy line of dialogue: “Marijuana used as medicine? That’ll never happen”), and basically just slog through its story like it’s lucky to even get told in the first place. That’s the devil’s bargain that Bailey seems to be paying here.
And while it’s sad that “Being Frank” should have to feel like such a gamble, the reality is that Bailey may have bet on the wrong approach: This script would have been better-served as a drama, or at least as less of a comedy. Casting a great comedian like Gaffigan as the harried dad whose world is (seriously) crumbling around him is a strong counterintuitive choice that crystallizes Gaffigan’s recent efforts to break through as a dramatic actor, but it’s hard for this movie to wring many laughs when the funniest person on screen is just trying to keep from being buried alive. Miller is a likeable and elastic performer, but he’s in the broad comedy that “Being Frank” thinks it has to be, while Gaffigan’s more subdued and implosive turn is anchored to the messy family drama that this film actually is.
Bailey’s movie is at its best when it backs its characters into the kind of corners that make us wonder how they’ll ever get out — there’s something raw and occasionally beautiful about how Frank tries to be frank for the first time in his adult life, and how that honesty allows Philip to see his dad as a real person for the first time in his whole life. Even as the film’s scenes begin stacking into an unstable Jenga tower of contrivances, the turbulent father-son dynamic continues to hold strong.
It’s hurtful for Philip to learn that his half-siblings are all the things that he’s not, but it’s just as touching for him to see how envious they are of his own strengths. It’s hurtful for Philip to learn that he was “a mistake,” but it’s just as touching for him to hear his dad reply, “No, I’m the mistake.” Pride and resentment and the inertia of bad decisions bundle together into such a fraught mix that all the comic dross that comes with the premise (e.g. eye-rolling incest humor) just feels like a missed opportunity in the making. Yes, it’s a real breath of fresh air to watch an American comedy so forthright, even one that isn’t funny. But it shouldn’t be.
The Film Arcade will release “Being Frank” in theaters on June 14.