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Faking it for Frankie 

click to enlarge What a sight: (From left to right) Emily Mortimer, Jack - McElhone and Gerard Butler.
  • What a sight: (From left to right) Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone and Gerard Butler.

Dear Frankie (PG-13)

Miramax

Kimball's Twin Peak

On one level, Dear Frankie paints an admirably compact and realistic portrait of a poor single mother and her deaf child struggling to find their way in Glasgow, Scotland.

Director Shona Auerbach excels at creating this small world and portrays the lower rungs of Scottish society with craft and wit.

At the film's start, we see Lizzie the single mom, Frankie the deaf son and Nell the grandmother moving into a dark and squalid apartment near the docks. They've come from out of town, which becomes clear as Frankie begins to write a letter to his "father":

"Dear Da, do you know something? We're moving again."

We quickly learn that the trio has relocated quite a few times, running away from Lizzie's abusive ex-husband. We also find out that Frankie isn't writing to the abusive father -- he's actually writing to a figment of Lizzie's imagination.

To protect Frankie (Jack McElhone) from the pain of being both deaf and fatherless, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) has created a fantasy father who travels the world on a freight ship, sending Frankie exotic postage stamps within letters filled with shark tales.

Lizzie is able to prop up this hoax by having Frankie mail his reply letters to a post office box, where she collects them and writes back.

McElhone is convincing as a vulnerable yet smart deaf child, who seems an old hand at moving to a new elementary school. Mortimer is also aptly cast as a beautiful woman who, because of her emotional chaos, can hardly enjoy life anymore.

The film's conflict arises when Frankie learns from a bullying schoolmate that the ship his father is supposed to be on is coming to town. Frankie makes a bet with the bully that his father will visit him. And when Frankie reports this bet in one of his letters, Lizzie panics.

But instead of divulging the truth to Frankie, Lizzie decides to continue the charade by hiring a stranger (Gerard Butler) to stand in as Davey, Frankie's dad.

Butler is a suave rogue, the perfect character to play the imagined seafaring adventurer. He immediately hits it off with Frankie and shows signs of wanting to do the same with Lizzie.

Here's where the movie becomes seriously flawed. While the tension Lizzie's hoax creates is sustained throughout much of the film (will Frankie discover the truth?), we start to feel sick as the manipulations stack up.

Without giving away too much, the biggest flaw is the characters' continuous manipulations of each other through the very end.

The results are somewhat bittersweet, even poignant, as Lizzie begins to let down her guard and fall for the stranger who becomes the father figure Frankie never had. But the underlying message is troubling: Deception is just fine if everything works out in the end.

That's a big problem for a small film tailored for telling a true-to-life story -- the whole enterprise is more than slightly absurd. And worse, we can easily end up feeling cheated, having catharsis held at arm's length.

Despite all the talent director Auerbach showcases in presenting Scotland so accurately, she fails by building a fallacious house of cards and never letting it crash.

-- Dan Wilcock

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