Review Lost at sea

The mother of 'Dear Frankie' conjures a father from the deep blue

Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, and Gerard Butler play a farcical family in Dear Frankie. Young Frankie, who is deaf, is the only one not in on the scheme, which is designed to answer his questions about, and yearning for, his absentee father.

Any man can become a father, but not all can be one. To hold the mantle of parent, a certain inner character is required, one that transcends that first act of procreation. Dear Frankie, an understated and powerful film from first-time director Shona Auerbach, is about this inner quality, as it is about a boy born to a father who rejected his paternal role not long after he acquired it. As a result, Frankie is now bereft, a child stricken with deafness who longs for the father he barely knew.

It is under these unhappy circumstances that Frankie is introduced to the sea. His guide is his mother, played with desperation and warmth by Emily Mortimer (Bright Young Things), who constructs an intricate fantasy predicated on the great lie that Frankie's father is a sailor traveling the world. Lizzie encourages her son to write letters that she intercepts and answers in the guise of the faraway father. In the process, the Scottish town's peaceful bay assumes a nearly mythic import. For the viewer, the blue waters symbolize a hopeless and almost cruelly rendered fantasy that can never come true. For young Frankie, the gateway to the sea is a continual promise of real fulfillment.

Eventually, Lizzie decides to bring this promise home. She casts out in search of a stranger, someone with "no past, no present, no future," who will pose as Frankie's ocean-going father for a single day. In short, she seeks a symbol, someone to complete her lie and bring closure to Frankie's gnawing loss. The man she recruits is indeed a stranger, to her as well as the audience. The pretender, played with magnetism by Gerard Butler (The Phantom of the Opera), is a grizzled presence with pain behind his eyes, a man whose inner character, at first, is a mystery. The atmosphere of uncertainty is heightened when Frankie's real father surfaces and demands to see his son.

Dear Frankie
Dir. Shona Auerbach; writ. Andrea Gibb; feat. Emily Mortimer, Gerard Butler, Sharon Small, Jack McElhone (PG-13)
For all its potential for melodrama, Dear Frankie unfolds with such naturalism that the viewer is completely absorbed, much as Frankie is spellbound by the sudden appearance of his seafaring father. The actors' organic performances rely more on physical expression than poetic speech, a quality that parallels Frankie's mute condition and imbues the scenes with a sense of authenticity. These are ordinary people tangled up in an often extraordinarily difficult world. As a result, the emotional revelations of the film are stripped of sentimentality and transformed into moments of astonishing clarity.

Mortimer navigates an especially challenging role as a mother compelled out of love for her child to undertake a morally ambiguous enterprise. We identify with the character because she portrays a woman made cynical and weary by the fragility of human relationships and whose sole guiding light is now the happiness of her son. The grace of Dear Frankie lies in its frank portrayal of this somber reality and then its deft inversion of seemingly incontrovertible truths. At one point, a minor character remarks that "blood is thicker than water." By the end of the film, water becomes thicker than blood, just as a heartbroken mother's lies are revealed to have been truths all along.

By Brian Chasnoff

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