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Gentle `Frankie' will be dear to tolerant viewers

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: April 15, 2005 | Publication: Charlotte.Com | Author: LAWRENCE TOPPMAN
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Scottish drama avoids the usual pitfalls for heart-tuggers about kids

When you hear the plot of "Dear Frankie," you may briefly feel a wave of cynicism roll over you. But the movie has been shot with love and wisdom, and its implausible premise doesn't get in the way of a sweetness and honesty too rarely seen.

Emily Mortimer plays Lizzie, a Scottish mom who has run away from her husband after an act of violence she couldn't condone. She lives with her mother (Mary Riggans) and 9-year-old Frankie (Jack McElhone), who's nearly deaf, and she tells him that his father travels as a merchant seaman who's never able to get home.

She writes letters from the "ports" Dad visits and intercepts Frankie's letters in return, hoping he'll lose interest in the father he never sees. Instead, he gets more excited -- and, when the boat from which his dad is supposedly writing docks in his home town, he expects a visit. Mom desperately hires a stranger (Gerard Butler) to spend the day with her son, impersonating the missing man, and the movie goes in a few unexpected directions from there.

Writer Andrea Gibb has taken more than usual care to answer questions that might arise. We learn why the real husband drove Lizzie away and why he wants to see Frankie after so long. We see the procedure by which she deceives her son -- it's credible, if a bit complicated -- and realize why she doesn't just tell him the unfortunate truth of their flight.

Meanwhile, director Shona Auerbach makes us feel at home in this chilly, slightly grim port town near Glasgow. Lizzie's desperation and loneliness are made palpable by her feeble entry into a bar, where the men stare dismissively and the barmaid warns her not to try to run a tab. Only a friendly shopkeeper (Sharon Small) takes a shine to this prickly single mom, who keeps her at arm's length for a while.

The casting reminds us why European actors are often more believable than our own: They go back and forth from big films to small without worrying about star billing or showy parts.

Butler, the articulate title character in the recent film version of "The Phantom of the Opera," plays the closed-off interloper in "Frankie" just as well. Mortimer can be cast as Hollywood eye candy (as in "The Kid" or the upcoming "The Pink Panther") but has the range to portray subtler, complicated women. McElhone, not yet a star on any level, is endearing as her wary, worried boy.

Director Auerbach is her own cinematographer, which guarantees that her vision will be realized exactly. (That's rare in Hollywood, though Steven Soderbergh and Peter Hyams do it.) We see the world through Frankie's eyes, from the glimmering light in the foyer of his apartment building to the cold glint of sunshine on the sea. He likes to remove his hearing aid, absorbing information visually, and we start to judge characters (as he does) intuitively, without listening to their words.

Butler's nameless interloper remains an enigma, motivated at first by the promise of cash but later by the misplaced love that streams out of Frankie. A Hollywood movie would have him declaring undying love for his newfound "family" after a couple of days in their presence; suffice to say that the franker "Frankie" doesn't resolve itself so simply.

In fact, the last scene contains a surprise that shows the previous 100 minutes in a potentially new light. I've had two debates about the ending, which can be read two ways, and neither has yielded a definitive interpretation. That's gratifying to a critic who sees 250 movies a year, and who's up to his neck in forced finales that wrap up contradictions and problems with a neat, shiny bow.

P.S. A reader recently asked me why the fine "Billy Elliot," which also happens to be about a boy who has trouble relating to his father, had to be rated R. The answer? Multiple use of the f-word. "Frankie" has just one such occurrence, which is why it's PG-13 and more accessible to teenagers who might enjoy it. Smart move.

REVIEW

Dear Frankie

A mother hires a stranger to impersonate her son's absent dad, with mildly surprising results. This potentially mawkish story stays real and touching up to a slightly ambiguous ending.

STARS: Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Gerard Butler.

DIRECTOR: Shona Auerbach.

LENGTH: 105 minutes.

RATING: PG-13 (brief strong profanity).

 


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