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Jan 8

movie log: Dear Frankie (2004)

Posted on Thursday, January 8, 2009 in movies

Viewed last night: Dear Frankie; directed by Shona Auerbach, starring Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, and Gerard Butler, including support from Mary Riggans and Sharon Small.

I’d had this on my want-to-see list for quite some time. We borrowed it from the Manchester (NH) Library as a candidate for viewing on New Year’s Eve but didn’t get to it that night; I finally did about a week later. I’m definitely glad to have done so.

I can’t talk much about this movie without revealing more plot elements than I’d usually like (I generally figure that things that happen close to the beginning of the film are fair game, as are parts of the story that are used to promote the film). I won’t go too far, but if you’d prefer not to risk it, stop now.

The movie opens with Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), her son Frankie (Jack McElhone), and her mother Nell (Mary Riggans) quickly leaving their home, making a sudden move to a new one. We get the idea that this happens frequently; that the family is accustomed to packing up and moving at a moment’s notice, for reasons as yet unknown. The family moves into their new apartment in Glasgow, and when Frankie goes to pick up some lunch at a shop nearby we learn that he is deaf. However it’s clear from his encounter at the shop and from his entrance into grade school the next day (or soon thereafter) that he’s not diminished by his handicap. And indeed the movie is not about Frankie as a deaf child as much as it is about Frankie and his other figurative voice.

Frankie’s other voice is used in his letters to his father, who he is told is away on a ship at sea. In reality this is a ruse invented by Lizzie to keep him believing in the existence and worth of his father. From time to time she picks up Frankie’s letters at a drop box and writes back to him in the guise of this fictional father.

Eventually it seems that the ruse has to end. Frankie learns from a new school chum that a ship with the same name as his fictional father’s fictional ship is due to arrive in Glasgow. He makes a bet with this other boy that his father will be coming to see him practice football. Lizzie’s hard decision is to hire a stranger to play the role of father for a day and keep the lie going.

Somewhere around the middle of the film I found it more than a little disquieting to think about what the mother was doing to her child. She was giving him a lie to believe in, and making him act out a fantasy that would, it seemed to me, be harder and harder on him the longer it was kept up. And yet as the movie progressed and we find out more about the circumstances that have led to this, and with an almost-satisfying ending the disquiet eased somewhat. Still, a movie doesn’t have to make me happy or make me approve of the protaganist: it just has to be a good story and be well told. This one is. Each turn of events is new and captivating, encountering and revealing serious material while remaining warmly and often deeply personal. There are stand-out performances all around.

Oddly, there were some elements in this movie that had parallels in the previous film that I saw (“Off the Black”, which I blogged about here. These are not ordinary things to be found in movies, either, so the coincidence was pretty striking. I won’t say more; if you happen to see both movies maybe you’ll notice them too.