Dear Frankie: Shona Auerbach Coming-of-Age Saga Starring Emily Mortimer

Shona Auerbach’s coming-of-age saga “Dear Frankie” is a small, heartwarming movie, whose greatest merit is its lack sentimentality and avoidance of being a standard dysfunctional family tale. A genre item with a nice twist, based on Andrea Gibb’s screenplay, it’s a serio-humorous tale of a nine year-old Frankie and his mom Lizzie, a single-parent family always on the move.

To protect her son from the truth, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) has invented a story. To satisfy Frankie’s curiosity, she regularly writes Frankie a letter from his make-believe father, who presumably works aboard a ship that travels to exotic lands. However, when Lizzie finds out that his ‘father’s’ ship will be arriving in a few days, she must choose between telling Frankie the truth or hatching a desperate plan to find the perfect stranger to play the perfect father.

Auerbach first read “Dear Frankie” as a short script in 1997. Admittedly, the story is too soft and life affirming, but it’s the kind of children’s picture that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore.

The film’s central dilemma is the lengths to which a mother would go in order to give her son a father she feels he wants and needs. For a while, the lie is rewarding. It gives Lizzie an enviably direct access to her son’s thoughts, and it also fills a gap in her own arid emotional life. The story explores the complications and complexities that always come with telling lies.

The yarn’s sensibility and the quality of the writing call for a strong. And, indeed, Auerbach has gathered a fine ensemble of talented actors, headed by Emily Mortimer (recently seen in “Young Adam”), and the up-and-coming star Gerard Butler (who plays the title role in “Phantom of the Opera”)

Auerbach, who also served as cinematographer, is good with the visual and technical properties, which are crucial in creating the right setting and mood. Simplicity of storytelling and style are the rules of the game, which suits the straightforward story just fine.

Gibb had originally conceived the idea for “Dear Frankie” as a 15-minute film for Scottish Screen’s Tartan Shorts series. When it wasn’t accepted, she set it aside, but not for too long. The story sprang from her childhood, during which her father was often absent, working away from home for long periods; like Frankie, she first communicated with her dad via letters. In truth, the story is slender, straining to meet the limits of a 90-minute feature.

“Dear Frankie” belongs to a whole tradition of films about sons growing without their fathers, such as Kusturica’s Cannes Palme d’Or winning, “When Father Went Away on Business,” or stories about father-boy relationships, such as the 1997 Oscar-winning Czech film, “Kolya.”
What would it feel like to have a parent that you wrote to, as opposed to having a parent who was actually living with This is the tough moral dilemma faced by the mother. You can see a vulgarized version of this premise on TV in “Nip/Tuck,” in the subplot where Julia (Joely Richardson) reveals to her son that his birth father is Troy.

Since viewers might perceive a mother lying to her child as morally wrong, “Dear Frankie” goes out of its way to show that she’s doing it out of good intent, her deep love for Frankie and the need to protect him.

Nell (Mary Riggans), Frankie’s grandmother wants the boy to realize that he had an abusive father. She wants to tell him the truth because she thinks moving from flat to flat is very confusing. She objects to her daughter living a lie and making the boy live a lie too. Nell believes the longer it’s put off the harder it’s going to be to tell him.

For a while, the relationships between Lizzie and the stranger, and between the stranger and Frankie are intriguing; the former is imbued with erotic and sexual overtones, and the latter with paternal ones.

The biggest change in turning the short script into a feature was the character of Frankie. The film’s key concepts are: How much of the truth does he know How much does he accept And how does that knowledge affect his communication with his mom and with the stranger

Many viewers will sense that Frankie knows more than he reveals, and without having heard. Nobody has told him that his father is on that ship, but deep down inside him he knows what is confirmed in the end. In this respect, the bold decision to turn Frankie into a deaf boy pays off emotionally.

The children in the film give the impression that they understand the nature of the deaf community. The cast spent some time at a deaf youth club, where the film’s kids played basketball with the deaf kids, and learned to adapt by using eye contact and hand movements. Additionally, two deaf advisors, Lucy Warnes and Derek Todd, were brought to coach the cast in signing. As for Lizzie, she is not fluent in signing, which means that she and Frankie have a unique way of communicating and signing to each other.

Giving a credible performance, Emily Mortimer is expressive, subtle, and loving, without ever being self-pitying. She communicates through her mannerisms, eyes, and intensity. Tackling her largest screen role to date, Mortimer knows that she can’t be loud and jolly and gregarious because it doesn’t suit the mood of the piece or her character. There’s something held back and repressed about Lizzie, which makes the moments when she does break out more exciting.

The role of the stranger, the man who’s willing to act as Frankie’s father, is also well-cast. Tall (6 ft 3), handsome, and rough, Butler makes you believe he is a sailor. Jack McElhone, who is ten years old and first appeared on screen in “Young Adam” as Tilda Swinton’s son, renders an assured performance that reflects a developed sense of self.

Auerbach began her career as a photographer before studying film at Manchester University, and cinematography at Leeds. After completing her MA at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, she made her directing debut with the short “Seven,” which was cited at the British Short Film Festival in 1996.

Drawing on Gibb’s background, the tale’s uniquely Scottish roots are unmistakable. Auerbach was inspired by the color and light in the work of Scottish artists at the turn of the century, specifically the Glasgow Boys and Glasgow Girls, whose paintings capture the particularly harmonious hues and gentle light of Scotland’s rural landscapes. The film was shot in the town Greenock on the Scottish Clyde Coast, a landscape that combines industry up the hills and water down the hills, a juxtaposition of imagery that is congruent with the story’s changing atmosphere.