- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

“Dear Frankie” is a small, enchanting movie set in and around Glasgow, Scotland, and centers on the yearning of its title character, a deaf 9-year-old (Jack McElhone), for a faceless father he knows only as a pen pal.

Trouble is, the pen pal is actually, secretly, Frankie’s mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer, late of “Young Adam”), a workaday waitress who guiltily shuttles around her son and grizzled old mum (Mary Riggans) in order to avoid the real deal the abusive lout who’s responsible for Frankie’s deafness in the first place.

The pattern is heartbreakingly dysfunctional: a family constantly uprooting itself to escape its past while its youngest member innocently lives in a partially invented present. Told that his dad travels the world and the seven seas, Frankie faithfully plots the imaginary seafarer’s progress on a wall-size map in his room.

—Then false hope strikes. A detail of Lizzie’s fiction the name of the ship, scheduled to dock imminently — turns out to be coincidentally true, forcing her hand: Spill the truth or weave yet more deception. She chooses deception.

—First-time director Shona Auerbach and screenwriter Andrea Gibb ask us to forgive Lizzie’s lies (that’s what they are, aren’t they?), a task made improbably easy by the introduction of the Stranger (Gerard Butler, “The Phantom of the Opera”), who agrees to masquerade as Frankie’s father for a day.

Who is the Stranger? An acquaintance, conveniently very hunky, of Lizzie’s waitress friend Marie (Sharon Small), but really he’s the man on Buck Owens’ “Great White Horse,” the heart of the movie’s nonoriginal soundtrack: “When I was a young girl I used to dream of a lover/to be my shining knight of strength one day.”

He and Frankie spend a day eating ice cream and skimming stones oh, it will give your tear ducts a workout, believe me. (The song choice of Jesse Harris’ wistful “The Secret Sun” was reliably affecting.)

—Lo and behold, the Stranger takes a liking to Lizzie herself. She resists. He grinds down her defenses, but not quite to the quick. If this all sounds too fairy-tale simple, well, it is, but “Frankie’s” virtue is modesty, so its conclusion is believable and bittersweet.

All of its performances, too, are modest and, in their way, potent. Young Jack, another “Young Adam” alum, must make his way through feelings of elation, anger, disappointment and curiosity without speaking; the rest of the cast must react to him like a one-way conversation is the most natural thing in the world, a routine that comically escapes Mr. Butler’s newcomer.

—Miss Auerbach also doubles as cinematographer, and her seascapes of Glasgow are an immense presence, at once green and gritty.

“Frankie” is not the most honest of pictures, but its tensions and sorrows are real enough. To see through its manipulations, you’ll have to see through your own tears first.

***Three starsDear Frankie”

RATING: PG-13 (Mild profanity)

CREDITS: Directed and photographed by Shona Auerbach. Produced by Caroline Wood. Written by Andrea Gibb. Original music by Alex Heffes.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes.

WEB SITE: https://www.miramax.com/dearfrankie/


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