Material that might have turned to standard dysfunctional family treacle in other hands is given stirring poignancy, warmth and emotional insight in Shona Auerbach’s assured first feature “Dear Frankie.” Chronicling a young mother’s elaborate attempts to shelter her deaf son from the truth about his violent father, the film showcases a new director with a firm command of the visual medium and an equally strong rapport with actors. Acquired by Miramax for multiple territories including North America, this unassuming yet genuinely affecting Scottish drama will require careful nurturing to make a commercial mark but should encounter receptive audiences.
Nine-year-old Frankie (Jake McElhone), his mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) and grandmother Nell (Mary Riggans) uproot constantly, changing addresses and schools in Glasgow to maintain a safe distance from Lizzie’s abusive ex-husband. To satisfy the curiosity of her hearing impaired son, Lizzie has concocted a more palatable identity for the boy’s father as a crewman on a cargo ship sailing the globe. Frankie’s idealized view of his absentee dad is fed by fake letters from exotic ports, in reality penned by his mother.
The deception becomes difficult to maintain when the ship from Lizzie’s fabricated account docks in the local harbor. Frankie’s bratty classmate (Sean Brown) makes a bet with the boy that his father will not show for their team’s Saturday soccer game. Cornered into revealing the truth or stretching the lie even further, Lizzie chooses the latter.
Through Marie (Sharon Small), her friend at the local fish shop, Lizzie hooks up with a brooding stranger (Gerard Butler), who agrees to pose as Frankie’s dad for a fee. Intended as a one-day experiment, the arrangement extends into a full weekend as the stranger responds not only to his duties as father-for-hire but also to Lizzie in unexpected ways. The fragile family unit is destabilized after the weekend when it emerges that Frankie’s real dad (Cal Macaninch) is dying.
Auerbach and screenwriter Andrea Gibb spin a touching story that never descends into schmaltz despite ample potential. The film is anchored in part by its setting in the kind of milieu more common to classic British kitchen-sink dramas or the films of Ken Loach than to anything this emotionally tender. Enriched by subtle notes of humor, the intimate story is powered by well-drawn relationships and finely shaded characters. Not only the family bonds but also those of friendship and tentative romance are traced with delicate economy and nuance.
Delivered in thick though not impenetrable Scottish accents, performances are hard to fault. Mortimer is moving as a young woman negating her own possibilities of fulfillment in order to function as a shield for her damaged son. McElhone conveys Frankie’s vulnerability and need of a paternal figure but also his resilience and surprising perceptiveness. Riggans sketches a stern but loving woman, fiercely protective of both her daughter and grandson. And Butler (the lead in Joel Schumacher’s upcoming “The Phantom of the Opera”) evokes the romantic heroes of a less cynical era, his dashing good looks and almost impossibly noble character grounded in sober realism.
A former still photographer, Auerbach serves as her own d.p., displaying a quietly descriptive visual style and a strong sense of composition that’s elegant without being overly fussy. The melancholy mood is nourished by the muted Northern light and timelessness of the Glasgow settings, which are contemporary but have an unchanged 1950s look. Also effective are Oral Norrie Ottey’s fluid, unhurried editing and Alex Heffes’ gentle melodic score.