Frankie is an exceptional child--smart, well-behaved and far wiser than a nine-year-old boy should be. Frankie is also deaf. Which may explain why his mother, Lizzie, dotes so on her only child, why she wants Frankie to have as normal an upbringing as possible, even if that means she has to invent a loving father for him.
Dear Frankie is set in Scotland, in a bleak northern port--a location which becomes integral to the plot. Lizzie has made Frankie believe his father is a merchant seaman on a ship that forever sails the far reaches of the world. It's been fairly easy to keep up this pretense, for at regular intervals Lizzie writes letters pretending to be Frankie's dad; she goes to the library to research the sights a globetrotting seaman might encounter, and even finds exotic stamps for the envelopes. Carrying the ruse even further, she gets Frankie to write letters to his dad, sending them to a local post-office box to be forwarded. Which, of course, is where Lizzie picks them up.
It all comes a cropper, though, when Frankie learns his dad's ship is coming to Scotland--to the port city where his family now lives. But instead of owning up to her intricate web of lies--and possibly breaking her son's heart--Lizzie decides to find a man who will pretend to be Frankie's father.
As played by Emily Mortimer (Young Adam, Lovely and Amazing) and young Jack McElhone, Lizzie and Frankie win our total empathy without straining for it. As does the rest of the cast: Mary Riggans as Lizzie's sensible mother, Nell; Sharon Small as her best friend, Marie, and Gerard Butler as The Stranger, the man who takes Lizzie's money to pose--for a day--as Frankie's dad.
Sounds like a setup for a feel-good family drama, with Lizzie and her stranger getting together for a happy ending, right? Well, not quite. There are mysterious doings throughout Dear Frankie: Lizzie and Frankie and Nell obviously have been on the run for some time; Nell finds distressing 'missing person' ads in the newspaper and makes furtive phone calls demanding that her daughter be left alone. Frankie, it seems, does have a real father. And Lizzie has real reasons to keep fleeing from him.
Dear Frankie is a quietly told film that--by casually tossing in a surprise here and a plot twist there--builds up to an ending that carries an intense emotional impact. In many ways, it resembles I'm Not Scared, an Italian film doing well in current release. Both focus on an all-knowing, all-seeing boy, yet both deal, at heart, with the foolishness of the adults in their lives. Which is not to say that Dear Frankie is not an original; it most definitely is--in its plot, in its low-key stylistic approach and in the intelligent, empathetic handling of its characters. A worthy film? Yes. And an enjoyable one, too.