Dear Frankie

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 09/13/04 13:39:48

"This Is What Can Happen When You're Not Directed By The Marshall Siblings"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2004 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Reading the plot outline for Dear Frankie is like taking an extended vacation through GarryMarshallLand. You can almost hear the piano strains offering a preview of things to come with forced sentimentality and a readiness to flash the cry sign at the audience. Color me with the cynical shortsight brush. Because in place of my worst expectations comes a beautifully calculated film about wounded souls trying to protect one another with performances that avoid manufactured button-pushing.

Single moms always seem to be on the move in the movies. Never staying in the same place for too long, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) isn’t all that different. She wants the best for her deaf nine-year-old son, Frankie (Jack McElhone) but they are running from a past that is not readily accessible for us. With her chain-smoking mum (Nell Morrison) in tow, the family has settled down again in a small Scottish community out by the docks.

Every couple of weeks Frankie receives a letter from his dad, who delights the boy with tales of sea aboard the HMS Accra and sends additions for his stamp collection. What Frankie doesn’t know is that the letters come courtesy of his mom, providing hope that he has a father figure out there who cares for him. She worries about undermining the love that has always been there for the boy, but it’s still the only way she can hear his voice. (Even if we hear it in voiceover by another child actor.)

Lizzie’s ploy is presently going to collapse around her though when she discovers that the HMS is slated to dock in their port. Rather than taking another chance on a man docking in HER port and aware of Frankie’s eagerness to see his dad, she plans to hire a bloke to play the part for just a day. No history required. Payment in increments. Her new co-worker (Sharon Small) introduces her to the handsome stranger (Gerard Butler) and the ruse is put in play.

Forgive yourself if the words “wackiness ensues” crept up into your brain. This is a thoroughly sensitive picture that doesn’t have room for the clichés of mistaken identity or love at first sight. Everyone in on the multiple mistruths put upon this child never balks at the possibility that this may not be the first chapter in child rearing. But life doesn’t always script itself out of a corner when it comes to placating a child’s emotions. The more we discover about Liz & Frankie’s history, the more we understand and can sympathize with her methods.

Emily Mortimer continues to position herself as an actress that deserves to be noticed more often. She plays Liz as such a broken entity; a woman whose youth is gone and now lives the rest of her days only for her son. The only love she wants back is his. Gerard Butler (who has successfully parted ways with the big-budget Paramount machine for now – Timeline, Tomb Raider 2 – and will soon be seen as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom) is also great as the stranger whose motives also aren’t entirely clear. Clearly he’s uncomfortable with the prospect but understands that foresight may be just as important as listening.

His brief relationship with Liz is all but poised for the quick love interest-in-a-pinch plotting. But while an attraction is evident, there’s something deeper that develops in their short time together and their parting glances is a breathless study in unforced timing. Between Garden State, The Girl Next Door and this, 2004 has certainly become the year of the first-kiss and the non-kiss.

Dear Frankie has all the ingredients for oversimplified sentimentality so gooey that it makes you rather eat off the theater floors. Where you expect oh-so-cute mugs of the boy, you get adolescent frustration. Where normally a handicap is played for a gimmick, its approached as just another everyday obstacle. Director Shona Auerbach and writer Andrea Gibb avoid the natural pitfalls right up to its unforced ending that makes us self-aware that it’s OK to shed a tear or two. After the screening, another critic asked me on the way out if the “fake dad” in the film looked familiar. I agreed but couldn’t quite figure out where I’d seen him. He added that he thought he saw him in something recently. It was only then that I realized he was speaking about Gerard Butler whom I had associated as Frankie’s real dad. I knew then what a special film Dear Frankie truly was.

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