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Dear Frankie Review - Chicago Tribune

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: March 10, 2005 | Publication: Chicago Tribune | Author: Robert K. Elder
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3 stars (out of 4)

Sometimes we enjoy movies even if we know exactly how they work and exactly how they're going to turn out. Director Shona Auerbach's debut feature "Dear Frankie" appeals to this sensibility, with its engaging, intimate story of a tender deception.

Jack McElhone ("Young Adam") plays Frankie, a deaf and whip-smart 10-year-old who moves across Scotland with his mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), and grandma Nell (Mary Riggans). Through frequent relocations, Frankie's one constant is mail—letters from his dad, who we're told works on a cargo ship.

In short order, however, it's revealed that Lizzie herself has been writing the letters, and her elaborate ruse is endangered when the ship Frankie's father is supposed to be on comes in for a docking.

"Dear Frankie," developed from a short film script by Andrea Gibb, operates within a very simple cinematic architecture. At the beginning, we're presented with a list of questions (Who is Frankie's dad? Where do the letters come from? How will Lizzie make it out of this mess?), and once the questions find answers, the credits roll.

That's not to say Auerbach's film operates like a list of plot points to be solved and checked off. On the contrary, there's plenty of room to walk around and absorb her damp, beautifully desolate Scottish landscape.

Director Auerbach's instincts help craft unexpected moments of tenderness and tension, as when she waits—one beat, then another, then another—for a kiss between Mortimer and Gerard Butler, billed only as "The Stranger" in "Dear Frankie's" credits. It's this kind of kinetic drama that imbues Auerbach's debut with a sure-footed sense of reality and evokes audience empathy.

Both Mortimer and McElhone stitch together this carefully modulated little character piece, with McElhone shining particularly bright as Frankie. Auerbach catches his near-wordless performance smartly, illustrating how Frankie uses his silence as a defense mechanism and safety net. McElhone demonstrates a commendable restraint and measured expressiveness. Like his mother, Frankie proves to be as strong-willed as he is vulnerable.

"Dear Frankie" doesn't revert to hairpin plot twists or other dramatic trickery to hook us in; Auerbach simply lets us live with her characters—which, it turns out, is reward enough.

relder@tribune.com

 


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