Dear Frankie isn't a good film, but it is a nice little movie. The tall tale of a deaf boy who prefers not to speak, his likewise withdrawn single mother, and their ambivalence about the men in their lives comes courtesy of screenwriter Andrea Gibb and first-time feature director Shona Auerbach. Their sensitivity to the emotional lives of mother and son too often betrays sense and sensibility, but never fails to tug a heartstring.
The boy, Frankie, can't remember his father—an abusive deadbeat now, unbeknownst to the lad, languishing on his deathbed. Much to his mother Lizzie's chagrin, Frankie still longs to meet his father, and writes him regular letters that his mother dutifully intercepts and answers. Circumstances force Lizzie's hand, and she nervously arranges for a stranger (played by Gerard Butler of The Phantom of the Opera) to pose as Frankie's dad.
Shooting in naturalistic low light, Auerbach gives this Scottish tragicomedy a gentle touch, and the performances are affecting all around, particularly those of Emily Mortimer as the rail-thin Lizzie and Jack McElhone as Frankie. Mortimer's anguish is palpable in an abortive, introverted bar outing and an overt emotional breaking point ("I'm here, Frankie....Im the one that's still here!"); McElhone makes Frankie's practiced quiet (he doesn't like to wear his hearing aid, and talks only sparingly) ring true.
Butler's character, billed only as "The Stranger," nearly turns the movie into one of those tragically idealized romance novel. Since the movie stubbornly refuses to treat him as a real person (but only as "a stranger—no past, no present, no future"), Butler awkwardly tries to play a symbol: a good-hearted, decent man drawn to mother and son but aware of the pitfalls they represent. If the filmmakers would only explain his ambivalence, they might have had a film, but from what we're told, "The Stranger" knows better than to do the things he does, capped by an inexplicable choice.
Focus, then, on the complicated perceptions of children and Lizzie's believably anguished defensiveness and weight of guilt; these viewpoints keep the film grounded in domestic situations born of recognizably unrealistic hopes. Dear Frankie raises the intriguing notion of what can happen when people become the conscious artists of their own lives.