With Michael Shannon currently on the Best Supporting Actor ballot at the Oscars for his sterling work in Nocturnal Animals, there could be a far worse week for Frank and Lola, a small festival and VOD release vehicle for him, to come out. And of course, this debut film from writer-director Matthew Ross benefits enormously from Shannon’s presence, but doesn’t have the staying power to match up to the best of the great character actor’s recent output. Often interesting, but also occasionally frustrating and weirdly paced, it signals an exciting future for Ross, and is further proof, if any were needed, of the immense capability of its leading man.
Shannon plays the Frank of the title, a deeply flawed but compelling and charismatic chef in a tempestuous relationship with recent graduate and fashion designer Lola (Imogen Poots). Frank and Lola initially faces an uphill climb to make anyone care about another story of an age-inappropriate relationship, but Ross quickly sets aside these qualms with a twisty series of character reveals in the first 15 or so minutes, establishing that Lola is far from a typical ingénue cliché. Instead, she’s just as possessive as Frank in their dysfunctional coupling, though naturally the far less intimidating of the two.
As the pair uncover a string of lies that each has been telling the other, they try and hold their relationship together, even as the film’s genre switches from romantic drama to something altogether darker and more mysterious. Strangely, whilst Frank and Lola make for an eminently watchable and engaging double act, the actual stakes of them staying together are very low. You never find yourself particularly caring if they break up or not, and that feels entirely deliberate, and Ross’ mid-film genre switch makes this flaw far less glaring than it might appear on paper.
After learning of Lola’s history with an older European man, Andy Larsson (Michael Nyqvist), Frank flies from his Vegas home to Paris , with a vague plan of badly hurting Andy. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be a bad idea, but their encounters don’t play out in the expected manner, instead revealing deeper secrets about Lola’s past and Frank’s psyche. For the first two thirds of the film, these continuous discoveries keep you guessing and glued to the story, even as sideshows like the opening of Frank’s new restaurant and a visit to a weird and gratuitous French sex club do their best to distract you.
Unfortunately, in the final act, Ross insists on giving us a clumsy and, frankly, unnecessary pop-psychologising of his characters’ behaviour. This big moment rings false, partly due to suddenly clunky writing, but also down to the fact that the monologue on which it all hinges falls to Poots, who can’t quite shoulder the weight. It weakens that which has come before, and the plot gets far more rote as we approach the finale, and I found myself steadily losing patience with it all in the last 10/15 minutes.
Despite crumbling material, Shannon is just as great in this latter act as he has been all film, anchoring everything with his unique, room-filling intensity, the intensity that makes the young and very beautiful Poots’ attraction to him plausible enough to keep everything ticking along. Frank and Lola packs a lot in (with both plot and character work) to its slim runtime, and given that two thirds of that is original and exciting, it marks an intriguing debut for Ross, who seems bound for a bona fide great film in his future.