Sweetness in 'Dear Frankie' Allows You to Overlook Flaws

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: April 15, 2005 | Publication: Arizona Daily Star | Author: Phil Villarreal
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"Dear Frankie" is sickeningly cruel or tenderly sweet. Sometimes it's one or the other; sometimes it's both at the same time. Perhaps the same statements are true of parenthood.

The jarring, yet sentimental Cockney drama from first-time feature director Shona Auerbach sifts through the torturous choices a mother must make while hoping to protect her son.

Some parents don't shelter their children enough, but the poverty-stricken, single mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) errs on the other end of the spectrum.

Her deaf preteen son, Frankie (Jack McElhone), eagerly sends letters to and receives them from his father, whom Frankie believes to be a sailor at sea.

Frankie scribbles down his hopes, troubles and dreams almost every day and cherishes the letters he receives in return.

Maybe Frankie's dad is at sea, maybe not. Maybe he's dead or in jail. Maybe he's got a new life somewhere, and he's a father to some other boy like Frankie. Whatever, he's not corresponding with Frankie.

Lizzie intercepts Frankie's correspondence and pretends she's Dad when she scribbles letters back to her son. This sort of thing is cute enough when Santa Claus is the pen pal, but what Lizzie's doing seems dangerous and creepy.

It also seems innocent and righteous. That it's tough to make a judgment call either way is a testament to the acting. McElhone is disarmingly hopeful and eager, and the bright-eyed happiness he infuses into Frankie seems so genuine it can't be invalid, even if it's generated under false pretenses.

Frankie needs some source of pleasure in a life filled with his lingering disability, too many bullies and too few friends. His belief that his dad loves him is so strong, Frankie bets a schoolmate his stamp collection and pocketknife that his dad will show up soon.

Mortimer ("Lovely and Amazing") builds a tough but transparent exterior over a pulsing core of self-doubt. Lizzie hints that she's hiding a troubling secret about Frankie's father, which makes it easier to give Lizzie the benefit of the doubt, even when she decides to help Frankie with his bet by hiring a stranger (Gerard Butler) to pretend he's Frankie's dad for a day.

Whether or not we agree with Lizzie's parenting style, we can't be angry because we feel so deeply for her.

Besides, Lizzie's mother, Nell (Mary Riggans) speaks for the viewer's moral core.

She chastises her daughter's choices, but such is Mortimer's earnest luminescence that we almost start looking upon Nell as the enemy.

Auerbach proves to be a director with an ear for soft-spoken dialogue and telling silences. She also knows when a wordless sequence or scene montage can be far more effective at relating a message than exposition-heavy monologues.

"Dear Frankie" has the tendency to slip into mawkishness, and it overexerts in efforts to drum up sympathy for the boy's deafness or the mother's trembling uncertainty. Even with the faults, a film as dear and frank as this deserves to be seen.