Directed by Shona Auerbach. Starring Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Gerard Butler, Mary Riggans, Sharon Small. (2004, PG-13, 105 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 15, 2005
Each letter from Frankie’s absent father, a seafaring man, begins with the titular salutation, and their influence on the deaf 8-year-old’s still-developing personality is deep. Frankie (McElhone) charts the course of his father’s ship on a map beside his bed, and his interests, including geography, marine life, and even vegetarianism (devoted to fish, Frankie refuses to eat them), are a direct result of these treasured letters. Joke’s on him, then, that Frankie’s mother, Lizzie (Mortimer), made the guy up. The real dad’s been out of the picture for years; Lizzie invented the fake dad in order to fill a void in Frankie’s life. Eventually, Lizzie grew addicted to the intimate connection she forged, however misleadingly, with her son via these letters. Joke’s on her, then, when fake dad’s ship docks in the harbor of their Scottish seaside town, and Lizzie is forced to produce a father posthaste. She strikes a deal with a stranger, who is known only as "the Man" (Butler, as good as can be in a role that is allegorical rather than of flesh and blood), to play Frankie’s dad for the duration of the ship’s furlough. Mortimer, McElhone, and Butler each bring sensitivity and likability to their roles, but they’ve an uphill battle personifying characters who are, respectively, a clairvoyant, a fantasist, and a fantasy. It is the fantasist – the terrifically damaged Lizzie – who proves the picture’s biggest sticking point. Dear Frankie hangs a good deal of its tension on her well-meaning but still tremendous deception, and its failure to adequately deal with the deception comes off like a cheat. I’m all for ambiguity, but Dear Frankie’s multiple dangling threads indicate incoherent storytelling, not profundity. Perhaps if Auerbauch and scripter Andrea Gibb had not padded their overly precious, overly ponderous movie with so many desperate flailings for pathos, Dear Frankie’s small charms might have shown through. Joke’s on them, then, that their attempts to forcibly warm the heart turn it to stone, instead.