Dear Frankie A Stunning Little Picture
By Kristin Battestella
Although it gets me every time and by the end I’m cursing at it for making me weep like a blubbering child, I never get tired of watching the endearing 2004 family drama Dear Frankie.
Young Frankie’s (Jack McElhone) dad has been perpetually away at sea but writes letters to his son sharing his location and adventures. Frankie, his mother Lizzie Morrison (Emily Mortimer) and her mother Nell (Mary Riggans) soon move to a new Scottish seaside town, where after receiving a letter from the other side of the world, less than friendly schoolmates surprisingly inform Frankie that his father’s ship will be in port soon. How can this be? Unbeknownst to her son, Lizzie has been writing the letters through a secret post office box after leaving her violent husband almost a decade ago. Desperate to maintain the charade and not hurt Frankie, Lizzie and her new downstairs neighbor and coworker Marie (Sharon Small) hire a Stranger (Gerard Butler) to pretend to be Frankie’s father for a day. Frankie can best his friends for the weekend the ship is docked, and then the Stranger will be on his way. However, the new emotions and bonds formed between the isolated family and the mysterious Stranger may be stronger than any of them anticipated.
Debut director Shona Auerbach and writer Andrea Gibb’s (AfterLife) tale may not technically pass the Bechdel test, for the women of Dear Frankie do spent a significant amount of time discussing ex-husbands and strange men with no pasts but romantic potential. However, the majority of conversations are about the impact of fathers, brothers, and sons – which isn’t exactly the same thing as chicks giggling over a man. Dear Frankie is very feminine in this honest look at how the male familial relationships have effected these women in largely negative ways. However, the beautiful dynamics between fathers and sons also lend a masculine appeal, and tender simple acts of kindness that turn into significant life altering events are never remiss. Neighbors willing to help new tenants, a kindly sister-in-law forced to represent the beastly, a gentle Stranger treading lightly on an special situation – each character in Dear Frankie has far reaching impacts at varying degrees of emotion or pain, yet most recognize the right thing to do. Smart dialogue does double duty in many places, as adults speak for the eponymous deaf boy and say something about themselves in the process. “I thought you had the one day? This is the second half of it.” Will this be the second half of their lives finally starting fresh? Abuses are not seen but strongly felt and visually suggested through angry shouts, hands afraid to touch, and literal running away, further raising the subtext and layers here.
The onscreen newspaper says Emily Mortimer’s (Lovely and Amazing) Lizzie is 28 and her son Frankie is nine and a half – obviously, she was pregnant and married fairly young and has spent almost all of her adult life gun shy and on the run. Along with the pressure of keeping up this ruse for her son and doing the best she can as a single parent, she has understandably fearful and stunted perceptions. Mortimer brings excellent sitting alone on a park bench all night despair as Lizzie seems unable to prevent the shattering of her son’s world. She’s desperate enough to have a completely un-background checked Stranger spend the day with her son, but the seemingly alarming prospect of allowing anyone into their small world helps her overcome her fears. The Stranger is correct in saying she gave him the right to sweep into their lives and that she has to trust someone – he sees this as the moment for which Lizzie and Frankie have both waited. Lizzie opens up by sharing Frankie’s photos and letters – the only way she can hear her son – plus her written responses, but she insists there will be nothing beyond business. She doesn’t quite know how to come out of her shell and won’t take the Stranger’s compliments. However, it’s wonderfully endearing to see the more traditional moments like brushing her hair, putting on nail polish, and dressing up return to her sense of being. Lizzie is pleasantly surprised by how easily the Stranger fits into their life, and the subtle looks, touches, pretense that isn’t really pretense, and silent performance from Mortimer are spot on. Lizzie tells Frankie she’s the parent who has been there and she’s entitled to something. Will she be burned again? Perhaps, but the slow letting her guard down excellence from Mortimer anchors Dear Frankie beautifully.
While Lizzie keeps all her stuff in her bag ready to move on, the Stranger’s bag is empty and ready to be filled, and anyone who thinks Gerard Butler isn’t worthy of his near top actor status should see Dear Frankie. If Chasing Mavericks was a personal father/son movie for him, then imagine this filming a stone’s throw from his Scottish roots, Butler’s being raised by a single mother, and the hearing troubles in his own youth. Amid a film so full of tender performances and endearing, memorable moments, Butler still almost steals this show with physical movements, incredible silent facial reactions, and tear inducing drama. Through his soft spoken delivery and excellent dialogue, the audience must infer, deduce, and speculate. The nameless Stranger never directly says anything about his life, but he has earned some silver at his temples and seems to have a past that he too is ready to leave behind. The Stranger wears the same clothes for his entire visit, and I’ll even acquiesce in my Butler beard preference because this close shave and regular look feel so natural for Dear Frankie. Nowadays it is either tabloid notoriety or bad romantic comedies and poorly received films with Butler. However, Dear Frankie proves that not only can he put a lot of performance in what is technically a little amount of material, but he irrefutably shines when the tale gives him the room to dig deep and bring forth those personal Method connections. I’m biased toward my favorite actor Montgomery Clift, who was notoriously intense and Method onscreen and off much to the torment of his directors, but I never in a million years thought that I would ever talk about Gerard Butler and Montgomery Clift in the same breath until I saw Dear Frankie. I do honestly like Butler, but it’s downright infuriating to see he is capable of something like this when he makes so many inferior pictures. Does he not give himself the credit, just take the paychecks as they come, or is he not seeing the right scripts? Somebody give this man another film like Dear Frankie, please! Why, why is Gerard Butler making crap comedies when he can make films like this? (And I know I said that exact same thing in my Coriolanus review. So please, scriptwriters, directors, casting agents, somebody, anybody, pretty pleasssseee cast this man in something of merit!)
Dear Frankie may seem like a woman’s film or a man’s bonding event but it also appeals to young audiences thanks to the titular, pint sized protagonist and his adorable little friends. Ironically, however, the story is not all about Frankie as it may initially seem. Certainly Jack McElhone (Stacked) is immediately lovable, and the audience is as equally charmed as those onscreen, but despite some scene stealing work, Frankie is most brilliant when he’s a growing, un-stagnant counterbalance catalyst for his mother. McElhone and Mortimer have some beautiful scenes together, too, and McElhone holds his own with the adult ensemble. Likewise, the late Mary Riggans (Take the High Road) as pesky mom Nell only wants the best for her daughter and grandson, and Riggans does well in a difficult fearfully protective yet uplifting and loving supporting role to anchor Lizzie. Sharon Small (Inspector Lynley Mysteries) as Marie is also a kind, intriguing lady. She seems wild at times, imperfect sure, yet she’s doing all right with her own business. She doesn’t have to be kind to the new girl in town, give her a job, feed Frankie, or help broker The Stranger. It would have been easier to put her head in the sand and never say anything to them as we so often do today. For whatever reason, out of kindness or her own relatable sympathies, Marie recognizes a woman in need and wonderfully does the right thing. Sister in law Anne Marie Timoney (Taggart) unfortunately has the small but critical and unenviable role as the go between contact for Lizzie. She completely understands why she left and doesn’t blame these circumstances on Lizzie at all. However, that doesn’t make her man in the middle trying to do what’s right an easy position, and a final act conflict does wonders for Dear Frankie.
Perhaps the decidedly hometown Scottish setting and accents may not be for everyone, but I’ll be darn Dear Frankie is perfectly steeped in quaint, authentic locations. Yes, the behind the times, lower quality of life living may seem sparse to spoiled Stateside audiences, too, and beyond the Macarena, the music will also be dated and unfamiliar. Thankfully, those music montages match the emotional tone and wonderfully reflect the niceties to be found in a simple, paired down existence – skipping stones along the shore, going for ice cream, roaming harbors with cool ships, and visiting exotic aquariums at the local pet shop. Though the essential to the plot deafness in Dear Frankie may not be all that accurate – I myself have known deaf and hard of hearing persons who make more sounds and talking attempts instead of being almost exclusively silent – the warmth here forgives the artistic license. Dear Frankie looks cold due to its windy, wet settings and locals bundled up in shabby sweaters, layers, and somewhat ugly clothes. However, these dressings also smartly represent the bulky, to be shed barriers surrounding these lovely characters. Dear Frankie’s aesthetics make the viewer want to come inside for tea or fish and chips, sing a song, and stay awhile regardless of the difficult situation.
I can talk a lot more about this movie or write more than I’ve written – and there’s a separate spoiler analysis essay following below this review proper, too! Simply put, however, Dear Frankie is a must see picture that moves you and makes you think. One should definitely have multiple rewatches to catch each subtlety, and like a well done treasured book, enjoy discovering something new each time. As in life, not everything is answered nice and tidy for the audience, yet viewers young and old can come away from Dear Frankie satisfied in mind and soul with every time.