The plot of Dear Frankie sounds like something scribbled onto the margins of a soap opera script. Nine year old Frankie (Jack McElhone, voiced by Jonathan Pender), who is deaf, and his mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) are on the move again in order to escape Lizzie’s abusive ex-husband. They end up in an idyllic coastal town in the west of Scotland where chip shop owners are your best friend, or at least they’re willing to offer you a part time job after meeting you once. Lizzie has convinced Frankie that his dad is sailing with the merchant marines aboard a ship called the Accra and that scheduling problems have kept them apart all these years. Frankie stays in touch by writing letters, which his mother dutifully responds to after collecting them from a post office box.
It’s a grand plan if you don’t think your kid is ever going to grow up or if you live in a landlocked city where sailors don’t frequent. This isn’t the case for Lizzie, and soon after settling down, Frankie bursts in with news that the Accra will be docking. She scrambles to find someone who can play dad for the day, and, because this is just that sort of town, she meets a stranger (Gerard Butler) at the last minute who fits the bill.
The cynic would rail against her latest short-sighted decision, which carries with it some long-term consequences, but this isn’t a cynic’s movie. The story depends on a bit of suspended reality and is carefully calculated to make a potentially reckless situation seem innocent and tender. Though the threat of Lizzie’s husband looms in the background, danger gets put on pause. The biggest menace is a bully in Frankie’s class who mildly provokes his new classmate over his absent father.
The rest of the film accompanies the makeshift family over the few days that the stranger is in town, and though it drags at times, a calm settles the story and allows the characters to unwind. Mortimer coils Lizzie into a nervous ball, a woman who recognizes the absurdity of her plans but who acts out of the deepest love for her son. She feels Frankie drifting away and doesn’t know how to draw him closer. The actress has you believing that you too would go to any lengths if you were similarly situated. It’s also a wonder what a mellow and restrained Butler does to absorb the tension. He sheds the brawny hero, and instead, his nameless stranger brings a few moments of gentleness into the lives of Lizzie and Frankie, enough to help them see things with renewed clarity.
The cinematography makes a surprising supporting player. The golden sunsets evoke the edges of a dream, or at least a place where the messy parts of life come to get sorted. The visuals provide the characters physical and mental space, but silence is an important factor in this film as well. This movie’s aural canvas reflects Frankie’s deafness, and I appreciated that it didn’t have to clang and clatter to make a point. There are times when the quiet is suffocating, especially for Lizzie, but it also becomes liberating.
McElhone is probably the biggest factor that keeps this film from tiptoeing towards a barrel of sap. He’s a wide-eyed wonder whose expressive face captures all the unfiltered feelings and observations of a child. Like everyone else in town, you want to see Frankie finally attached to this man who has always been just out of reach. The kid deserves it, and the movie delivers.
Prod: Caroline Wood
Dir: Shona Auerbach
Writer: Andrea Gibb
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Gerard Butler, Jack McElhone, Sharon Small, Mary Riggans, Cal Macaninch, Jayd Johnson, Jonathan Pender, Sean Brown
Time: 105 min
Lang: English, British Sign Language
Country: United Kingdom