Robot and Frank is an artfully constructed and touching tale about an old man and his robot.
The film, which first appeared in January at the Sundance Festival, and has been gaining release slowly since, follows the near-future story of a long retired jewel thief’s last great adventure. His son, worried over his father’s health, and not wanting to be forced to take care of his father on his own, buys the former cat-burglar – who now resorts to petty theft and shoplifting for thrills – a robot caretaker, programmed with the primary function to help make Frank healthier.
In many ways, Robot and Frank is a classic buddy adventure, with many of the tropes of that genre.
The two do not get along at first, with Frank persistently resisting the Robot’s attempts at making healthy meals, and encouraging him to take up new hobbies. However, when Frank realizes the robot is capable of learning new skills – like lock picking – and has no programming which covers an adherence to law, he ultimately sees the machine as a partner in crime.
He convinces the robot that planning and executing a heist will help keep him occupied and improve his brain function – as Frank’s memory loss is a central element of the film.
Memory becomes a major theme in the film. While Frank is poor of memory, and occasionally delusional, the robot has perfect recall, and works through every situation analytically.
The way the film deals with the age-old concepts of memory’s role in identity and the ‘humanity’ of machines is clever and beautiful, with few cracks in the veneer. The robot, for example, is never presented as if it actually does have feelings. Even the robot itself discusses the truth that there are no emotions within itself, only a drive to complete programmed requirements. All of the emotion of the robot is projected from Frank.
Simultaneously, Frank is a sort of Don Quixote figure - a point lamp-shaded by the presence of a valuable copy of Don Quixote - being used as a plot element. Most of his actions are based on misunderstandings and delusions. He sees enemies where there are not enemies, and while there are not literal windmills for him to tilt at, his grudge with the young hipsters who have recently moved to town, and begun a project to renovate his library, is a similar battle.
The film is not all literary beauty, however, it’s also a clever piece in general, with well-crafted dialogue and very few narrative flaws. The film manages to genuinely surprise – I won’t spoil it for you – at several junctures. The characters are all relatable and well-performed without any gratuitous supporting roles.
In most films about the future, even the near future, our major characters are usually young people, who have only known that new world, but here we have a protagonist who would have been an adult in our own time, adding the additional question for anyone currently in their 3rd or 4th decade: "Is that me, when I'm older? Will I, at that age, approach robots and electric cars the way the current elderly mostly approach smart phones and Facebook?"
It's a touching, and all too human, tale of aging, technical and emotional obsolescence, and generational divide. It doesn't have a huge budget, but the studio does well with what it has, and don't allow the sci-fi elements to overwhelm the emotional elements of the film. If you can find this great indie film in your local limited-run theater, you'd be remiss not to check it out.