All movies require you to believe something, or at least to pretend not to disbelieve it. What “Dear Frankie” asks is that you take its word for it that its heart is in the right place. If you succumb to the suspicion that it is pushing your buttons intentionally, that it’s TRYING to gain your sympathy, the mood will be spoiled and you’ll dismiss the film as manipulative. If you can go with it, though, it’s a sweet little heart-tugger.
Young Frankie Morrison (Jack McElhone), a deaf, introverted lad, has just moved with his mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) and grandmother Nell (Mary Riggans) to a small Scottish seaside town. They move often and lead lives that are impoverished but relatively happy. Frankie believes his father is out at sea on a ship called the Accra but in fact his father is out of the picture altogether. Frankie writes to his dad faithfully, and his mother — who intercepts the letters at the post office box to which Frankie addresses them — writes replies and signs them “Dad,” even including stamps from the far-off places “Dad” has visited.
Why Lizzie began this charade is not clear, but it’s apparent now that it has gone on too long and she just has no way of resolving it. Her mother disapproves altogether, but agrees that simply telling Frankie the whole truth would do more harm than good.
As fate would have it, the Accra — which turns out to be a real ship, to Lizzie’s horror — is due to dock in a few days, and Frankie is thrilled at the prospect of meeting his father for the first time. Resolute to the last, Lizzie sets out to find a man whom she can pay to pretend to be Frankie’s dad for a day. There is a truly mournful sequence in which she spends an evening in a smoky, raucous pub hoping to meet a decent, understanding man, only to be dismayed and discouraged by the prospects.
You have already spotted the red flags: the lonely kid (he’s DEAF, too, for heaven’s sake!), his loving mother, the seemingly inevitable heartbreak of Frankie learning the truth — this has maudlin Hallmark drama written all over it. And to be fair, it has its share of melodramatic moments, where the emotion moves further and faster than is comfortable. But the film, written by Andrea Gibb and directed by Shona Auerbach — few men could produce something that so nicely combines sentiment with intelligence — is served by a plot that dares to go in directions we would not have supposed. Lizzie does find a man (Gerard Butler) to stand in for Frankie’s dad, and he and Frankie do spend a marvelous day bonding. But where it goes from there is unexpected and satisfying.
Yes, Lizzie could have told Frankie that the Accra about to dock is not the same Accra his father is on. And yeah, any trouble she has because of her massive web of deception is her own fault. But Emily Mortimer plays Lizzie with a sort of bedraggled conviction, having the aura of a mother who, misguided though she may sometimes be, would do anything for her child. We can say she shouldn’t have done it, but we can’t deny she did it out of love.
Young Jack McElhone, who plays Frankie as a smiling, near-mute boy who has (as do all fictional deaf characters) a supernatural ability to read lips, achieves with no dialogue what few child actors are able to do with pages of it: believability. You take it for granted that adult actors can convince you they are who they’re pretending to be, but that quality is much rarer in kids, so rare as to be the exception rather than the rule. But here is McElhone, as convincing as his older counterparts, making the drama a lovely, heartfelt one.
B (1 hr., 45 min.; )