Film Review: The Frontier

A beautiful and perceptive young woman persuades a retired professor of literature and his son to try and repair their deeply-damaged relationship in this well-acted family drama.

After receiving a heartfelt (if somewhat overwritten) letter from his long-estranged father, once-fiery academic and activist Sean Sullivan (Max Gail), ranch-hand Tennessee (Coleman Kelly) returns home. He's greeted by the beautiful Nina (Anastassia Sendyk), whom he takes to be the latest in his father's string of much-younger girlfriends. But she turns out to be his assistant: Sean has undertaken to write his memoirs and Nina, who's fleeing an abusive relationship, has agreed to move in and help transcribe, edit and organize his tapes, notebooks and other personal materials. She also acts as a mediator and sometime referee as the two men gradually undertake the emotionally grueling process of untangling a lifetime's worth of grievances, large and small.

The frontier of the title, borrowed from Walt Whitman's poem "O, Pioneers" isn't physical: it's emotional, and actor-turned-writer/director Matt Rabinowitz (who does a walk-on as a mailman) elicits remarkable performances from a cast whose backgrounds are so mismatched they sound like the start of a joke: A 1970s television regular (Gail, best known for playing none-too-bright detective Wojciehowicz in the comedy-drama “Barney Miller”), a former model (Sendyk) and a first-time movie actor with a handful of theater credits (Kelly). Granted, Kelly and Sendyk are graduates of the Strasberg Film and Theater Institute (where co-writer Carlos Colunga teaches), while Gail is a two-time Emmy-nominee, but The Frontier could easily have been ham-fisted, maudlin or cliché-riddled, especially given its tight shooting schedule.

That it isn't is a credit to all involved. It's the definition of a small film: Three characters rattle around one set—Sean's house, a pretty, ocean-proximate property slowly running to seed—but it tackles big emotional issues through small moments: A post-hangover breakfast of noxious Russian soup, a late-night dip in the pool, a game of Wii tennis. While its theatrical prospects are limited to small art-house venues, The Frontier could find a strong second life via cable and streaming video, particularly among older moviegoers looking for character-driven dramas rather than action-heavy genre pictures.

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