The Sundance Film Festival has been a crucial launching pad for clever low-budget science fiction films in recent years, from modern classics Primer and Moon to last year’s Brit Marling-centric breakouts Another Earth and Sound of My Voice. This year was no different as audiences were treated to two quirky, sci-fi-tinged indie dramas from first-time writer and director teams: the first being Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow’s winning time-travel rom-com Safety Not Guaranteed — which has had some considerable crossover success thanks to the popularity of its lead actors’ TV roles — while the second is Christopher D. Ford and Jake Schreier’s understated gem Robot & Frank, starring screen and stage veteran Frank Langella in a marvelous lead turn alongside Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler and Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of the titular robot.
Set in the near future, the film follows Frank (Frank Langella), a retired cat burglar who lives alone in the picturesque small town of Cold Spring in Upstate New York. With his house a shambles and memory ailing, Frank’s grown-up children worry about him, but he stubbornly refuses to move to a nursing home. Against Frank’s wishes, his pragmatic son, Hunter (James Marsden), buys a robot companion — a shiny white machine with an astronaut helmet, designed by Daft Punk-collaborators Alterian Inc. and voiced by Peter Sarsgaard — which is programmed to provide therapeutic care, including a regimented routine of vegetarian food, exercise and gardening. Although initially resentful of the “appliance” and its insistence on healthy living (“That cereal is for children, Frank!”), Frank likes his cooking and gradually warms to the perky, unnamed robot. When he discovers that the robot’s programming — perhaps implausibly — does not distinguish between legal and criminal activities, Frank sees an opportunity for a heist with his able new lock-picker.
Thus an occasionally humourous and ultimately moving odd couple journey begins, as the two plot to lift an antique copy of Don Quixote — providing a nice metaphor — from the local library that Frank regularly visits to impress the appealing librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). When he learns that the library is being renovated into an “augmented reality” community centre by a smug and wealthy developer (Jeremy Strong), a repulsed Frank decides that this man would make the perfect mark. After witnessing how revitalised the first heist made his owner, the robot permits one more. However, the plan is soon stalled by the arrival of Frank’s idealist daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), who finds the robot ethically objectionable, and things grow further complicated when the law take an interest in his activities.
While Robot & Frank definitely falls into the high-concept sci-fi category, screenwriter Christopher D. Ford and director Jake Schreier — who won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at Sundance — are more interested in characters than futuristic visuals and speculations, which is perhaps a wise choice on a film of limited means. The real strength of their film lies in its remarkable cast, who elevate it beyond that of a quirky curiosity to something truly memorable with strong, naturalistic performances across the board. Langella is just brilliant as the alternately crotchety and charming cat burglar, and his bittersweet portrayal of a man struggling with aging is one of the most affecting I can recall. As the voice of the robot, Sarsgaard gives us a truly great artificial intelligence screen creation, forgoing HAL 9000 clichés in favour of a more natural and cheerful tone. Sarandon delivers a lovely and quiet portrait of sadness, and Marsden, Tyler and Strong are all well-cast and on form in their small supporting roles.
Things go off the rails a little in a final act that heads in a much more formulaic and obvious direction with the introduction of Sheriff Rowlings (Jeremy Sisto), but the narrative thankfully returns to its truthful path in a rather heartbreaking conclusion. Former music video director Schreier — whose pals Francis and the Lights compose the score — has delivered a remarkably polished effort for a first-time filmmaker, and while it is by no means a visionary work, he and Ford have given us something more than an intriguing concept. Robot & Frank is a thoughtful, entertaining and genuinely moving meditation on aging, family, and the pervasiveness of technology in our lives, which is curiously neither utopian or dystopian, but instead just a slightly tweaked version of our current reality. The friendship between Frank and the robot is one of the most poignant in recent memory, thanks in no small part to the tremendous actors, this deceptively modest film will sneak up on you. Robot & Frank is one of this year’s most pleasant surprises, and I look forward to seeing what this talented writer and director team do next.
Robot and Frank is out now. Watch the trailer below.