Dear Frankie takes the most maligned of movie attributes — sentimentality — and turns it into a good thing. The film could have easily been fodder for melodrama and mush; but first-time director Shona Auerbach manages to bring together a family drama that rings true, even in its most unlikely turns.
Protective single mum Lizzie, played by Emily Mortimer with an excellent Glaswegian accent, constantly moves around to keep her son’s abusive father off her trail. Her 9-year-old boy, Frankie (Jack McElhone), is eager to settle down; he’s deaf, and Lizzie refers to his hearing loss as “a gift from his daddy.”
Lizzie, however, has been lying to her son about his father. She’s been painting a far brighter image of his dad, making up a story about him being a sailor away at sea on a fictitious ship called HMS Accra. Frankie, meanwhile, dutifully sends his dad letters, which Lizzie intercepts. She then writes Frankie back, posing as his dad.
The ruse hums along fine until Frankie hears that a real ship named Accra is scheduled to come to port in their Scottish town. Afraid to crush her son, Lizzie hires a handsome stranger (Gerard Butler) to pose as Frankie’s dad, which, of course, brings more turmoil.
Those who find tearjerkers manipulative will nitpick at the improbable points in the plot. The movie indeed hinges largely on a whopper of a coincidence: That of all the ports in all the towns in all the world, Accra sails into Frankie’s town.
The actors, however, all tread carefully with their emotions, giving the film the necessary credibility to make the tender moments soft, not sappy.
The young McElhone does wonders to keep the movie out of the dregs of schmaltziness. He pulls off a charming and bright Frankie without trying to win the audience over with cloying cuteness, or fishing too deep for sympathy for his character’s hearing loss.
The beautiful Mortimer promises to be over-the-top with Steve Martin in this year’s Pink Panther flick, but she’s suitably more low-key here. When it’s obvious she’s as keen on the father-for-hire as Frankie is, her feelings are only hinted at. There’s no gush of Hollywood passion, just a tentative suggestion of romance.
Dear Frankie is honest and smart, yet still handkerchief-worthy, and that’s nothing to sniff at.
Showing at the Uptown Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward, Birmingham; 248-644-FILM).
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.