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Tear-jerker `Frankie' nearly letter-perfect

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: March 11, 2005 | Publication: Boston Herald | Author: James Verniere
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In the well-acted, two-hankie weepie ``Dear Frankie,'' a 9-year-old deaf boy (Jack McElhone) longs for the father he believes is writing him letters as he sails the seven seas.
It's all a lovely hoax perpetrated by the boy's devoted mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer, trying her best to look drab), a single parent in Scotland barely scraping by with her son and chain-smoking mom (TV veteran Mary Riggans) in tow. Lizzie intercepts Frankie's correspondence and writes the letters from Frankie's ``da'' herself, using exotic stamps she buys.
As the action begins, a sad-faced Frankie and his mom and grandmother Nell are moving ``again'' from one run-down rental to another one in Glasgow. What Frankie doesn't know is that they are trying to hide their whereabouts from others for reasons not made clear until the film's third act.
Frankie must adjust to another new school, where he befriends Davey Morrison (Cal Macaninch), even though Davey taunts him and can be terribly cruel. Frankie also becomes interested in a girl (Jayd Johnson) who knows sign language.
When Frankie learns the ship his father is supposedly working aboard is docking in Glasgow in a few days, he's ecstatic. But his mother panics and decides to hire a stranger (Gerard Butler of ``The Phantom of the Opera,'' literally billed as ``the Stranger'') to pretend to be Frankie's dad.
Before you can imagine Scotland's own Sir Walter Scott declaiming, ``Oh, what a tangled web we weave,'' the screenplay by Andrea Gibb trots out the hunky stranger, who is overflowing with paternal instinct and laying a lusty vibe on sex-starved Lizzie, and the complications get even more complicated.
Directed by Shona Auerbach, whose credits primarily include TV commercials, ``Dear Frankie'' is either heart-wrenching or irritating depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing.
From the beginning, we hear frequent voice-overs by Frankie spoken in what I assume is supposed to be his ``inner voice,'' a concept some might find dubious or sentimental or both. Frankie otherwise speaks, haltingly, onscreen only once.
Mortimer and McElhone work well together here as deeply connected and occasionally contentious mother and son, and Butler gives the Stranger an interestingly gruff and doltish sexiness (the Scottish-born actor is much better here than in the dreadful ``Phantom'').
``Dear Frankie'' is the sort of film that, by its nature - a challenged kid, a boy who misses his father, a mother searching for a soul mate - engages your sympathy. It's a type of emotional stickup, really. Whether you want to, you'll be saying ``Awwww,'' as you watch the Stranger teach Frankie how to skip stones over the water of Glasgow bay. While the film often crosses the line between storytelling and bullying, Auerbach has done a marvelous job of casting. Sharon Small, for example, of British TV's ``Inspector Lynley Mysteries,'' brings tremendous vivaciousness to the role of Lizzie's friend Marie.
``Dear Frankie'' may be an emotional stickup, but at least these stickup artists are professionals.

 


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