This unassuming little Scottish film from first-time director Shona Auerbach (who also photographed the movie) played at the unlikely hour of 11 a.m. on a Sunday as an out-of-competition entry at last year’s Asheville Film Festival, and is just now making its limited theatrical rounds.
Unfortunately, the fact that it has no big name stars and no superstar director probably means it’s not going to get very much attention. Plus, it probably comes too soon after Danny Boyle’s Millions, which may seem to some — at least on the surface — a similarly toned film. It really isn’t anything like Millions, which, compared to this film, is a whimsical flight of fancy.
Dear Frankie tells a somewhat fantastic, or at least romantic, story, but it does so in an utterly realistic, almost grubby manner. The one thing the two films do share — apart from a child as the central character — is the blessed ability to create sentimental work that is not in the least bit gooey.
Auerbach’s film, in fact, resembles nothing so much as Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye, Lenin!, with its similar theme of the incredible lengths to which people will go to protect a loved one from a truth that might harm them.
In the case of Dear Frankie, we’re presented with Lizzie (Emily Mortimer, Bright Young Things), a single mother who fears the truth about her absent husband would be bad for her young deaf son, Frankie (Jack McElhone, Young Adam), so she’s invented a father who’s always at sea on a ship called the Accra. The largely uncommunicative Frankie is downright chatty in his letters to his imaginary father — letters Lizzie intercepts and answers. Indeed, it’s only through the letters that Lizzie feels she has any idea what’s going on in her son’s head.
The problem with this situation is that it turns out that there really is a ship called the Accra — and worse, it’s scheduled to dock in Glasgow and a schoolmate has informed Frankie of this fact. Moreover, the boy tells Frankie that his father probably won’t bother visiting him anyway, since the man never did before. Rather than give up the fantasy she’s created, Lizzie enlists the aid of a man identified only as the Stranger (Gerard Butler, Phantom of the Opera) to pose as Frankie’s father.
This is the stuff of comedy, but the film, which isn’t devoid of humor, doesn’t go that direction. There are several complications — not the least of which is the fact that Frankie’s real father is dying and wants to see his son. Lizzie is adamant that this will not happen, since she wants nothing to do with her abusive ex-husband, who, it turns out, is actually responsible for the boy’s deafness.
Also, the Stranger, despite his claims of only doing this for the money, is drawn more and more to both Frankie and Lizzie. A bare description of the plot gives little hint of the deep sense of humanity the film is imbued with — and it’s that sense of humanity that makes Dear Frankie such a worthwhile little movie.
The film’s sentimentality is balanced by a strong, hard-edged sense of reality at every turn. Lizzie is a woman who was badly burned by her marriage and has yet to heal, and she’s become both suspicious of others and even hard. Emily Mortimer perfectly captures this complexity, and McElhone and Butler fit right in with her portrayal. The performances are all of the highest caliber; all of the actors seem to actually inhabit their roles and the rather drab world they live in. It all adds up to a purely blissful and satisfying cinematic experience — one I hope will find a broader audience than I expect it to. Rated PG-13 for language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke