DEAR FRANKIE (Shona Auerbach, 2004)
In DEAR FRANKIE Emily Mortimer plays Lizzie, single mother to a deaf nine-year-old son. Lizzie, Frankie, and her mother move regularly so that Lizzie’s abusive husband and his family can’t find them. Lizzie has never revealed the truth about Frankie’s father to him and explains his absence with a lie that he works on a ship. Posing as Frankie’s dad, Lizzie writes letters to her son to perpetuate the falsehood. One day a classmate informs Frankie that his dad’s ship is scheduled to dock in a Glasgow harbor. Rather than come clean, Lizzie pays a stranger to pretend to be Frankie’s father for a day.
At first glance Shona Auerbach’s DEAR FRANKIE appears to be the stuff of a Lifetime TV movie. True to its weepy telefilm resemblance, DEAR FRANKIE delivers several eye-dabbing moments, but the tears in this working class tale are earned through solid storytelling and subdued acting. As a fiercely protective mother Mortimer’s tender performance is especially good. Although Lizzie is vulnerable, Mortimer refuses to play her as a victim. She’s strong when she must be, but Mortimer doesn’t overdo it. Her Lizzie is a complicated woman who knows the house of cards she’s constructed will come tumbling down eventually, but she is unable to look past the daily struggle or confess to the ugly truth. As the whip-smart Frankie, Jack McElhone is engaging in a performance that is anything but cloying. Screenwriters love to employ the construct of a character paying a stranger to pose as someone else even if it isn’t a common action in everyday life. The shopworn story device works in DEAR FRANKIE because Auerbach and screenwriter Andrea Gibb stick to a neorealist style that makes Lizzie’s choice, the helpful stranger, and the deception’s aftermath believable for these people and this situation.
(Review first aired on the May 24, 2005 NOW PLAYING and was published in a different form in Issue 12 of The Film Journal)