[Screen It]


(2005) (Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone) (PG-13)

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Drama: After years of lying to her son about his father's whereabouts to protect him from the truth about the man, a single mother must figure out what to do when the father's fictional ship turns out to be real and is scheduled to dock in their city in a few days.
Frankie Morrison (JACK McELHONE) is a 9-year-old deaf boy who's partially living in a fantasy world that's not of his doing. It seems that his mother Lizzie (EMILY MORTIMER) -- after fleeing her abusive husband, Davey (CAL MACANINCH) with a young Frankie and his grandmother Nell (MARY RIGGANS) -- has concocted an elaborate lie to explain the father's absence.

Ever since he was little, Lizzie has told him that Davey is a seaman who's constantly traveling around the world. Frankie is fixated on him and all things maritime related, checking out every book he can find and constantly writing to his father. The responses, however, are penned by Lizzie who intercepts the outgoing mail and writes back to the boy as his father. Nell doesn't approve of this deceit, but Lizzie believes she's protecting her son from a harmful and disappointing truth.

The family is always on the move, hoping to stay one step ahead of Davey, and have now arrived in Glasgow. Frankie is happy since they're by the sea, but Lizzie is horrified when she learns -- and realizes that Frankie knows -- that the ship she thought she had made up is actually arriving in port in a few days. Knowing they can't flee, Lizzie eventually decides to hire someone to pose as the boy's father for the few days he'd be in port.

When she can't find anyone, her boss, cafe owner Marie (SHARON SMALL), steps in delivers an unnamed stranger (GERARD BUTLER) who reluctantly agrees to the ruse in exchange for pay. Frankie's malcontent classmate Ricky Monroe (SEAN BROWN) bets him that his father won't show, but is shocked when "he" does. With the agreement being only to spend a day together, Frankie and his "dad" get in as much father/son time as they can, with Frankie showing a never before seen happiness and the stranger finding his dormant paternal feelings coming to a head.

As Lizzie hopes that the ruse will conclude without any revelations about the truth, her plan is put in jeopardy when her sister-in-law, Janet (ANNE MARIE TIMONEY), tracks her down and informs her that Davey is on his death bed and wants to make amends with his long-estranged family. From that point on, Lizzie must decide what to do and whether to continue her protective ruse with her son.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
People lie for any number of reasons. Kids do it because they don't know any better (but most continue even after they do), while adults participate in two forms. One is designed to deceive others for devious, criminal or other such reasons and is done out of spite or at least not caring about the results of such deceit.

The other is what's commonly known as white lies, the kind that many men tell when asked some variation of "Am I/Does this make me look fat?" They're done to protect someone else's feelings, or when the deceitful angle isn't that harmful to others. Of course, when one has to tell more and more lies -- of either kind -- to cover the first, it only makes the situation that much worse.

In the movies, that can result in some sort of insightful drama, or, conversely, comedy be it of the con man type or just plain slapstick where we laugh at the liar as they try to add lie upon lie so as to cover the first and hopefully not be caught. The movie "Dear Frankie" is something of a combination of the two genres, although it leans heavily toward the dramatic with touches of light humor and whimsy thrown in for good measure.

In it, the lovely and talented Emily Mortimer plays a single mother who's lied to her son about his father ever since she took the boy -- just a toddler at the time -- and ran off with her mother, hoping to always stay one step ahead of her despicable former mate. Her ruse is rather complex. With the boy believing his father is a seaman who's always on the water, he writes letters to his "da" and surprisingly gets responses back from him.

Of course, it's not really him, but his mom who's intercepted and read her boy's mail (her only way, she says, of hearing him speak since he's deaf from one of his father's suggested beatings), and then penned a response. This goes back and forth, with the boy tracking his father's ship as it navigates around the globe and learning everything he can about maritime life and such.

The mother never imagines, however, that the name of the ship she's chosen is that of a real vessel, and that it's now coming to dock by their latest home. Unable to pick up and run away again -- since her son wants to finally meet his dad after nine years of never seeing him -- the mother does the next best thing. She finds a stranger, pays him to act like the boy's father, and then hopes for the best.

The result -- directed by newcomer Shona Auerbach from a screenplay by Andrea Gibb ("Afterlife") -- is a moderately entertaining and engaging little film with good intentions, but only a mediocre execution. While Mortimer ("Formula 51," "Lovely and Amazing") is quite good as that mother and Jack McElhone ("Young Adam") is charming as her resourceful son, the film never feels like it gets out of second gear.

Despite the complex sounding story, the plot ends up being rather humdrum, never generating any big laughs or spectacular drama. For a while, it's also quite predictable, as we expect and then see the "father" and boy bonding, and the mother and stranger somewhat falling for each other.

If that sounds somewhat familiar, it's because the far superior "About a Boy" told the same sort of story -- without all of the deceit -- about father/son relationships and damaged souls finally being repaired and emerging into the sunlight. While that film mixed comedy, drama and a lot of heart into a completely satisfying experience, one is apt to view this offering with less of an enthusiastic response.

To make matters worse, the film emulates its subject matter and characters by lying to its viewers. I won't say what the big revelation is, but it's nothing short of a copout, albeit a well-intentioned, white lie sort of one. Rather than having what seems like a natural if sad conclusion, the film drops a bomb on its audience by basically saying that something isn't what we've been led to believe it was all along.

Those who favor happy conclusions probably won't mind, but it's really a cheap tactic that leaves a bad aftertaste. Some may also not like other contrivances and a rather strong need to suspend one's disbelief about certain matters, such as why the boy doesn't ask why he's never seen a photo of his dad (or why his image is torn out of others).

Beyond Mortimer and McElhone, supporting performances from the likes of Mary Riggans (making her feature debut) as the skeptical grandmother and Sharon Small ("About a Boy," the "Inspector Lynley Mysteries" TV shows) as the local cafe owner who helps in the lie are rather good.

Somewhat disappointing, however, is Gerard Butler (now fully-faced after only having half of his visible in "The Phantom of the Opera") as the stranger who drops, rather reluctantly, into the boy's life and then ends up having his paternal instincts take over. Butler purposefully plays the character as reserved and close to the vest, but that also serves to keep viewers somewhat at arm's length, preventing them from fully accepting and rooting for him.

It's not a horrible or debilitating flaw, but it's just yet another point that keeps the film from being as good it probably could and should have been. While I'm guessing the picture will have its share of supporters -- some them possibly adamant -- I'd be lying if I said this was anything more than a mediocre offering. "Dear Frankie" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 7, 2005 / Posted March 11, 2005

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