Lizzie Morrison (a marvelous Emily Mortimer, “Young Adam”) is an exasperated Scottish mother who keeps her hearing-impaired son, Frankie (Jack McElhone), on his toes through constant relocation to keep his away from his real father. The young boy, who has never really met his father, thinks he’s away at sea, and writes to him with thoughts and hopes for a future reunion. Little does Frankie know that it’s been Lizzie writing him back all these years. When the fictional ship Lizzie’s been writing to Frankie about actually docks in Scotland for the weekend, she frantically tries to hire a warm body to play the father role, settling on a gruff, mysterious stranger (Gerard Butler) to take the job.
Shona Auerbach’s “Dear Frankie” is a tender entry in the traditional Miramax gallop to provide heartwarming, life-affirming entertainment for awards consideration. “Frankie” doesn’t have the peacock feathers of a true award winner, but its calm, kindhearted charms are the selling point here, along with the great performances from the cast.
On the surface, “Dear Frankie” looks like an average manipulative tear jerker, what with a hearing-impaired lead character and the tale’s undercurrents of forgiveness and generosity. However, “Frankie” never takes that expected turn into drivel, and for every moment of manipulation comes a moment of unexpected truth or restraint. Auerbach deftly assembles a broken home drama that isn’t offensive, even when she pushes some hot topic buttons (such as the truth about Frankie’s father). The realities of the plot are allowed to sink in slowly, and Alex Heffes’s magnificent, spare piano score helps keep the film on a low flame, away from hysterical overloads of emotion.
If there were some type of cinematic award for miracles, it should be presented to Auerbach for her ability to wring something resembling an honest-to-God performance out of the typically chilly Gerard Butler. The actor, seen in stinkers like “Timeline,” and the “Tomb Raider” sequel, “The Cradle of Life,” has been a drag in his recent roles, and the very appearance of his name in the “Dear Frankie” credits promises a major casting mistake in a critical role. But Butler safely assumes the role of the fake dad, and gives a performance that is characteristically restrained, but palpably delicate when it comes time for the character to soften and welcome Frankie into his heart. I’m praying Butler won’t blow this fortunate career opportunity.
There’s a moment, late in the picture, where a normally silent Frankie speaks for the first time to his new father. In place of triumphant horns on the soundtrack or Frankie being lifted in the air in celebration, the moment is quietly played out in hushed reactions and observance. The scene is representative of the entire film, which avoids big moments for a chance to creep up on the audience and burrow into their hearts in a little more selective fashion.Rating: A-