Working with sentiment is like working with nitroglycerin. Use just the right amount and you can treat a heart condition. Use too much and it's gonna blow up in your face, taking a whole lot of people with you. Get it right and you come up with a classic weeper like Old Yeller. Get it wrong and you end up with a manipulative horror like Pay It Forward. It takes an alchemical precision to work with heart-tugging sentiment, and few Hollywood people really have the skill for it.
I, for one, am one of the most sap-free people you're likely to meet. If I didn't cry when E.T. died, I sure as hell ain't gonna cry when Ashton Kutcher finally hooks up with Brittany Murphy, or whomever he's romancing in whatever his latest lame film might be. So it was with a cynical heart and a flinty glare that I approached the UK import Dear Frankie.
If ever there was a film that broadcast its possibly fatal overdose of sentiment, it's this one. Here's the setup for the film: Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) is a young mum trying to raise her deaf, preteen son (Jack McElhone) in hardscrabble Scotland. She ran out on her abusive hubby shortly after the kid was born, but--desperate to provide some sort of authority figure for the lad--Lizzie has spent the last eight years writing letters to little Frankie in the guise of his long-lost father. Dad is supposed to be on the crew of a tramp steamer traveling the world--hence, his inability to ever see his son in person. One day, however, a too-inquisitive Frankie finds out that his father's alleged ship will be docking in the seaside town in which he and mum reside. Still unable to tell Frankie the truth, Lizzie decides to hire a stranger (Gerard Butler) to “play” Frankie's father for a day or two. ... I think you can figure out where all this is leading.
Dear Frankie has enough deception to qualify as a romantic comedy--which, in some small sense, it is. Given the far-fetched story line and the wealth of tear-jerking elements (handicapped son, lonely single mother, handsome drifter), viewers can reasonably expect Dear Frankie to pump the syrupy sap faster than an Aunt Jemima factory. But something funny happened on the way to the cineplex. Something about Dear Frankie just plain ... works.
Now maybe I'm getting soft in my dotage, but I really warmed to Dear Frankie. For starters, the cast is solid. Emily Mortimer (Elizabeth, Lovely & Amazing, Young Adam) is one of England's more interesting imports, and she's certainly sympathetic as Frankie's too-protective mother. Jack McElhone (also in Young Adam) is another one of those perfect child actors, nabbed before adult artifice sets in. Butler (The Phantom of the Opera, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider--The Cradle of Life) is almost too perfect as the handsome stranger. (Is there any doubt that Lizzie will fall for him the moment he shows up with his beautiful stubble and his shabby-chic navy peacoat?) Still, he's exactly what you'd want in an ideal father and a hunky object of romance.
Director Shona Auerbach pours on the emotions with an eyedropper, slowly and steadily, and avoids drowning the entire production in crocodile tears. The script wisely keeps all three characters at a distance. Young Frankie is desperate to connect with his father, but is cautious, having never even met the man--plus, the kid may be just a little wise to mum's machinations. Lizzie, having screwed up her lovelife with an early pregnancy and a string of lowly losers, isn't exactly eager to fall in love, even if it is with Gerard Butler. The Stranger (that's the only name he's given) is attracted to this instant family, but knows he's just a drifter who's going to ship out on the next boat south. Doubt, caution, trepidation, barely healed wounds and a faint under current of unextinguished hope are the emotions that are most frequently on display here.
This whole exercise could have been mawkishly melodramatic, but the filmmakers have used fine acting, subtle directing and understated scripting to find the emotional truths hidden in these hard, lonely characters. With a perfect mixture of laughter, tears, romance and hard-won emotion, Dear Frankie is a feel-good film that actually feels good.
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