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Sincerity seals 'Dear Frankie'

Category: Dear Frankie Reviews
Article Date: May 20, 2005 | Publication: Lexington Herald Leader | Author: Matthew Towner

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For whatever reason, the moral difficulty of raising children is rarely examined with any semblance of literary seriousness on film. Instead, this divisive but highly accessible theme is regularly reduced to being good fodder for bad comedies.

That may be good news for Steve Martin (the world's best Worst Onscreen Dad), but Cheaper by the Dozen and Parenthood aren't exactly discussed as being vital to a culture. His characters are to be observed rather than identified with.

So when a small, solemn and sweet family-issues film like Dear Frankie comes along, it's as easy to overpraise as to overlook. The scenario, which mixes soap opera and tragedy, reads implausibly, but the combined emotional effort of the actors adds a tender resonance rarely felt in a child-actor vehicle.

The title refers to the correspondence between Frankie (Jack McElhone), a deaf 9-year-old, and a person he thinks is his seaman father. In reality, Frankie's mum, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), is writing the letters to hide the truth about her ex from her son. To preserve the fantasy, she buys international stamps to send Frankie for his collection.

Her attention to detail backfires when Frankie learns that the HMS Accra, the real ship as opposed to the one in Lizzie's letters, will dock near their home in a fortnight. In a bout of absurdity that will make or break the film for most viewers, Lizzie elects to pay a brooding stranger (Gerard Butler) to play Frankie's dad until the ship sails.

The turn seems imposed on a dilemma that otherwise could have been drawn from real life. Normally a dad-for-hire movie scenario would result in hijinks and immediate romantic sparks, thus theoretically diverting attention away from how stupid the whole thing is.

But this narrative conceit sticks out here because everything else about Dear Frankie, from the locations to the acting, is so strong. For much of the film, the characters are stuck in emotional stasis, which requires the actors to be selflessly committed to an understated approach. Without a hitch, they all are.

Dear Frankie may be starting to sound like an inert arthouse experience to be admired rather than enjoyed, but it's not. Certainly this film's lighter moments aren't broad and trailer-friendly, but the accumulated warmth, empathy and well-placed humor in the performances make it as endearing as more commercial fare.

At last year's Cannes Film Festival, Dear Frankie was overpraised and received a 15-minute standing ovation. Though that reaction was a bit much, when the film opens in Lexington, as this year's Cannes festival comes to a close, Dear Frankie shouldn't be overlooked.

Film delivers touching new perspective on parenthood


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