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Dear Frankie   C

Miramax Films / Pathé Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Shona Auerbach
Writer: Andrea Gibb
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Gerard Butler, Sharon Small, Jack McElhone, Mary Riggans, Jayd Johnson, Sean Brown.

Review by Sean O'Connell

To thoroughly enjoy Shona Auerbach's feature debut Dear Frankie, you have to take an inordinate amount of story detail on faith. At its heart lies a very sweet concept, but one that's easily poked to pieces if you're inclined to do so.

The movie asks us to believe that for years, overprotective Scottish mom Lizzie (an effective Emily Mortimer) has openly deceived her deaf and mute son, Frankie (Jack McElhone), in order to shelter him from the reality that his birth father is a violent cad.

How does she maintain this ruse? Twice a month, Lizzie makes Frankie write letters to his "dad," who supposedly is stationed at sea on a boat whose name she invented. In truth, Frankie's letters are going to a post office box in Glasgow, and Lizzie is answering them herself. Her own disapproving mom (Mary Riggans) berates Lizzie for lying to her boy and demands he be told the truth about his abusive dad. But Lizzie argues that the letters are the only real window into her mute son's soul, and she isn't strong enough to bring their "communications" to a close.

So far, I'm with it. Admittedly, Frankie sets both barrels at our sympathetic chords, cueing up staples of the soft-rock radio charts for every uplifting moment the filmmakers built in to illicit a tear. I'm even willing to overlook the fact that Frankie, being deaf but not blind, doesn't link his mom's handwriting to the handwritten letters he receives from his father. Little things like that aren't going to bother me.

That is, until we reach the story's hook. A newspaper clipping states that Frankie's dad's boat -- the one with the name Lizzie made up -- actually exists. And it's pulling into Frankie's port town. The absurd coincidence forces Lizzie's hand, so she hires a handsome stranger (Gerard Butler) to pose as Frankie's dad for the day to further avoid facing the ugly truth.

Again, very sweet, but preposterous. These are flavorless predicaments with minimal consequences solved by all-too-easy resolutions. Butler and Mortimer connect with McElhone, but their familial facade hangs like an empty birdhouse in a metaphorical tree.

Screenwriter Andrea Gibb's concept should have triggered limitless growth. Just imagine if you, as a parent, could control every word your spouse uttered to the child that worshipped them. What would you do with that power? Make them eat their vegetables? Encourage them to study harder? Gibb is content to have Lizzie upgrade Frankie's stamp collection whenever possible instead of making serious strides in the family's rickety relationship, and the untapped potential goes noticed.

Review published 04.11.2005.

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