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'Dear Frankie' boasts genuine warmth, heart

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: April 21, 2005 | Publication: Daily Tar Heel | Author: WILLIAM FONVIELLE
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Sometimes, as a break from the shoot-’em-up ear-splitting of mainstream Hollywood, you just need to watch a sweet, loving film about a mother who tricks her deaf son into thinking a perfect stranger is his father.

And no, that wasn’t meant to be sarcastic.

Despite the rather cynical conceit that drives the film, “Dear Frankie” emerges victorious, achieving a deft combination of humor and warmth that leaves the viewer in that perfect middle ground of feeling neither cold nor manipulated.

Credit for this must partly be dealt to first-time director Shona Auerbach, who knows when to keep her characters talking and when simply to shut up, letting the audience fill in the blanks.

Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) lives with her mother and her son, Frankie. Frankie’s father is nothing more than a deadbeat child abuser whom Lizzie left years ago, but she has Frankie believe that he is away at sea on the HMS Accra. Of course, when the ship actually is set to dock in their home of Glasgow, Scotland, Frankie expects a visit from his father.

As mentioned, Lizzie hires a stranger (Gerard Butler) to pose as Frankie’s dad for a couple of days, as their house is completely without any photos of the real father.

This leads to a moment with Lizzie and The Stranger (as he is credited) standing face to face in a doorway. In the course of their time together, they don’t fall in love, but they reach an understanding.

As they look at each other for what feels like an eternity, the two of them just get it. Their fears. Their desires. Not a word passes between them, and yet they say everything that must be said.

“Dear Frankie” is living, breathing evidence of the beauty that can be captured on film when a director recognizes those instances when dialogue is superfluous.

And what a beautiful film this is.

In the hands of a lesser cast and crew, this could have been nothing more than a treacly tearjerker. But under the guidance of Auerbach and writer Andrea Gibb, it overcomes the inherent clichés of its genre to become an honest, thoughtful study of characters just trying to cope with the life they’ve been stuck with.

We may not believe that a plot like this would ever occur, but as presented, we do believe that this is how these characters might react.

The cast is uniformly excellent­, all quiet and understated, never reaching for the spotlight but serving at the pleasure of the screenplay.

This is particularly true with young Jack McElhone, who plays Frankie. By playing a cute, deaf 9-year-old without a father, McElhone would normally have been given carte blanche to ham it up. Instead, he delivers one of the best child performances of recent years, coming off as natural and undercoached (that’s a compliment).

At its heart, “Dear Frankie” is a film that wants its audience to break out the Kleenex, so looking at it from a broad scope, it does adhere to a standard plot structure.

The film lives and thrives not on plot, but on details. On small, subtly touching moments. On affecting performances of growing power. It rounds the bases of a cinematic weepie, but not in the order you’d expect.

Contact the A&E Editor at artsdesk@unc.edu.

 


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