The writer Robert Greenfield is one of my oldest friends, someone who’s made me laugh and made me think for more than 50 years. Five years ago, something terrible happened to him and his family. Now, in its wake, comes a poignant and wonderful event.
Bob’s vibrant wife, Donna Frantz, a legendary disc jockey on Carmel’s KLRB who was the first to play the then-unknown Dire Straits on American radio (and has the gold record presented to her by the group to prove it), was diagnosed five years ago with progressive aphasia.
That meant first a shocking loss of speech. Then reading, writing and other cognitive skills began to disappear, an out-of-nowhere, early onset of dementia that devastated the family.
Cut to today. Bob and Donna’s daughter Anna Greenfield, collaborating with her close friends Jessy Hodges and Lisa Steen, has made a first-rate, nine-minute dramatic film, both moving and pointed, stemming from that family experience.
More than that, “Sundowners” beat formidable odds to become one of only 20 American fiction shorts chosen to screen at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival out of 4,720 entries. As Bob noted when we spoke, it’s easier to get into Harvard. A lot easier.
The film’s simple one-sentence summation — a father and daughter cook, drink and converse in the kitchen knowing, in Anna’s words, “how to talk about everything except for the most tragic thing happening in the next room” — belies the film’s deftness with both dialogue and emotion.
“It feels like a real moment in its characters’ lives: There are no heroes or villains; things aren’t over-explained; it doesn’t tell you what to think,” explains Mike Plante, Sundance’s senior short film programmer. “It’s brave and talented to do a story like this because it often doesn’t work. It seems easy to do, but it’s very hard to pull off. To create a world and give you a story in nine minutes is really impressive.”
I initially was drawn to “Sundowners” for obvious reasons — because I’ve known the family that inspired its story for decades and I was curious about how you go about recreating aspects of your life in a way that is dramatic and involving.
But the more I talked to the filmmakers involved, for whom mutual support is as natural as breathing, the more I was drawn to an additional narrative thread, to the heartening and very personal specifics of how “Sundowners” was put together.