Dear Frankie, Shona Auerbach’s first feature film, evidences the director’s extensive prior experience as a director of photography. Her canny sense of where to put the camera and how to move the camera lends Dear Frankie a deceptive visual simplicity. Never obtrusive or calling attention to its subtle and skilled technique, Auerbach tells an intimate story with directness and charm totally appropriate to the screenplay by Andrea Gibb, also making her feature film debut.
The premise of the story is a bit of a stretch. In Glasgow, Lizzie Morrison (Emily Mortimer), along with her nine-year-old son, Frankie (Jack McElhone), and her mother, Nell (Mary Riggans), have been moving from place to place in order to avoid Davey, Lizzie’s ex-husband, Frankie’s abusive dad. Lizzie has told Frankie that his dad is a seaman; Frankie writes to this imaginary dad and Lizzie intercepts the letters and writes back. It provides the boy with a surrogate, if absent, dad and Lizzie loves to read Frankie’s letters–he’s a deaf-mute and it’s a way she can hear her son speak. Motivation is established.
If the setup seems just a tad unbelievable, sensitive and observant character development goes a long way toward encouraging a suspension of disbelief. Lizzie has been hurt emotionally as her son has been hurt physically; she is protective of him, but she also has drawn into herself, insulating herself from further pain by staying uninvolved.
Frankie, who reads lips expertly, plays soccer, and collects the stamps he think his dad is sending him from around the world, is smart, boyish, and only a bit wary of the hearing world. On his first day at school, a girl signs him "hello" from across the yard; he responds enthusiastically, thinking he has found a friend with whom to communicate, but the girl just signals "hello" again–it’s the only sign she knows. His isolation is thus succinctly put in focus.
By chance (again a bit of artificiality in the plotting), a ship is arriving in Glasgow with the same name as the fictional ship that Lizzie made up for her ruse with Frankie. Lizzie, rather than confess her hoax and hurt the boy, hires a seaman (Gerard Butler) to pretend to be Frankie’s dad.
Surely, this is material that, in the wrong hands, could drip heavily with sentimentality and easy, soap-opera sudsiness. But Auerbach, eliciting fine performances from her cast, keeps it dry and never goes over the edge into cheap emotion. Emotional responses are in keeping with the characterizations, and well-written dialogue (only occasionally in hard-to-understand Scottish dialect) helps sustain a reality that the turns of plot constantly threaten.