Title: Dear Frankie
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Shona Auerbach
Screenwriters: Andrea Gibb
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Gerard Butler
Some good peple do stupid things in Shona Auerbach’s gentle Dear Frankie, and the film, in an admirable effort to understand and sympathize, fails to hold them responsible or even acknowledge their missteps. No one expects Auerbach or screenwriter Andrea Gibb to crucify their characters, but they do an awful lot of copping out and opting for convenience instead of emotional truth; it would have been nice if, in addition to its comforting “things turn out all right for good people” message, it had at least recognized that the protagonist has some serious, serious mistakes under her belt. I’m all for redemption, but the way Dear Frankie approaches it is pretty disingenuous.
Let’s be fair, though: the protagonist’s silliness comes in an effort to protect her son, quixotic though it may be. Little Frankie Morrison is deaf (for no particular reason; why must filmmakers give defenseless children cruel handicaps?) and misses his father terribly. Dad’s separation from the family was anything but amicable — Frankie, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), and her mother Nell (Mary Riggans) have spent years running away from him, never staying in one place for very long. But Frankie lives under the delusion that his dad is a sailor on a boat called ACCRA, misses him very much, and sends him letters and stamps for his collection on a regular basis. The letters, of course, come from Lizzie, who cannot bear to tell her son the truth.
Now this, you might argue, is already a pretty boneheaded move, considering that Frankie is certainly old enough and bright enough to deal with reality. But it’s also the kind of mistake that’s eminently forgivable, a misguided protectiveness that’s naturally borne out of love. Every time Lizzie writes another letter, she tells us, she swears it will be the last, but inevitably it isn’t, and Frankie becomes the beneficiary of another exciting sailor yarn and another colorful stamp.
But then a bizarre coincidence causes Lizzie to lose it, and the film begins to grate somewhat. The ACCRA, which is an actual boat, is scheduled to dock near the Morrisons’ new residence in a matter of weeks, and Frankie learns of this. He bets a mean-spirited friend that he’ll bring his dad to soccer tryouts that weekend. This spells trouble for Lizzie, but instead of letting that particular house of cards topple to the ground as gently as possible, she decides to complicate her ruse by — ready for this? — hiring a stranger to pose as Frankie’s dad so that he can win his bet and “spend a wonderful day with his father.”
At this point, you may find yourself exclaiming “whaaa?” and let me assure you, that’s a perfectly acceptable response. This is unquestionably the single dumbest idea of all time, the probability of awful, traumatic failure nearly 100%. Despite the painful ugliness of this scenario, Dear Frankie milks it for dramatic tension and even has the chutzpah to threaten a romance between Lizzie and the Mysterious Stranger (Gerard Butler). That this is a stunningly cruel act isn’t supposed to occur to anyone.
Inevitably, of course, things do work out, and we’re supposed to be relieved, but that’s not playing fair; stupid acts tend to have consequences, and Auerbach lets her characters off. We don’t yearn to see these people punished or anything of the sort, but the sentimental happy ending is unearned; the film doesn’t deal with its own conflict in an honest way.
And yet I find myself recommending Dear Frankie anyway; it’s a well-meaning, engaging story that fits perfectly into the mold of the dreary-but-uplifting British drama (you know the kind I mean). It is also very well-shot and beautifully edited — there is one particular montage showing the simple act of Frankie walking home that is breathtaking in a quiet way. It’s an auspicious feature debut for Shona Auerbach, though perhaps less so for Andrea Gibb. Respect for one’s characters is generally preferable to unconditional forgiveness.