Review: Dear Frankie (2004)

Is it ever okay to lie to a kid? Apparently, most parents are okay fibbing about things like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Suppose the father beat his baby son so badly that he made him deaf for life? What’s a mother to do? That is Lizzie’s (Emily Mortimer) dilemma in Dear Frankie. In her case, she “solved” the issue by packing up her son and mother in the middle of the night and moving to Scotland. She then invented the lie that his father is a sailor constantly traveling on the HMR Accra. Her nine and a half year old son Frankie (Jack McElhone) frequently writes his absent “father”, which is actually his mother, who dutifully intercepts his letters at a post office box and replies as his “father”.

Lies though have a way of catching up with you, and fear of running into her ex-husband often has her moving from town to town. Her husband, or someone from her husband’s side of the family desperately wants to contact her, leaving classified ads in local papers. Lizzie’s chain smoking mother Nell (Mary Riggan) often acts as the vigilant family sentry. When the heat gets too visible, they move to a different town.

The boy in question, Frankie, may be deaf but is an excellent sight-reader and smarter than many hearing-students his age. His passion is geography, in part because he likes to track the progress of his father’s “ship”, the HMR Accra. The HMR Accra exists, and was chosen by Lizzie because she found it on a stamp, and Frankie is also an avid stamp collector. Shortly after moving to the Scottish seaside town of Greenock, the improbable happens. Through a classmate, Frankie learns that the real HMR Accra will soon pay a visit to Greenock. Will “father” and son connect at last? What excuse can Lizzie give now that Frankie would actually believe?

Desperate lies call for desperate measures. If Lizzie can find a substitute “father” from the HMR Accra to pretend to be her ex-husband, maybe the lie can last a lifetime. When an attempt proves futile, she confesses her dilemma to her friend Marie (Sharon Small), who employs her in her fish and chips shop. Marie finds a man willing to pretend to be his father Davey (Gerard Butler). Lizzie is looking for a man to be a father for a day, with no past or future.

The film is heartfelt but feels bleak and morose. Scotland has rarely looked drearier and uglier on film. Moreover, the characters are wholly plausible. The film has a feeling of grittiness and reality that is captured faithfully. Frankie is also something of a heartbreaker, desperately wanting to meet his father and be, for once, something like a normal boy. Lizzie is trying desperately to make her son happy and to protect him, which seems impossible.

Without giving too much away, when the substitute father shows up the film moves from dreariness to being interesting. Despite the original plan to spend just one day with the boy, this man finds himself drawn to be the father Frankie needs. Lizzie must work through her own feelings of shame to realize this stranger is really an ideal father to Frankie and a possible new love for herself. One problem is that this stranger really is a sailor on the HMS Accra and has to leave with his ship. Can their strange complex relationship be resolved before he leaves?

Find out by renting Dear Frankie. There are no special effects in this movie, just a well-acted and plausible story of the effects that shame and guilt can wreak on a family. Everyone seems destined to end up the victim, including Frankie’s real father who is dying in a nearby hospital and wants to reconnect with his son.

This is a hard film to watch at times, but worth your time and attention. 3.1 on my four-point scale.

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