The opening moments of director Shona Auerbach’s “Dear Frankie” reflect the love and attention the filmmakers clearly lavished on this wondrous little gem:
A boy carefully packs his few treasures up in newspapers and a cardboard box as his family prepares to move. In meticulous letters, he writes his name, “Frankie Morrison,” and the instructions “Handle With Care!!” on the box.
That may well have been the slogan for Auerbach and her collaborators, who treat Frankie and his odd circle of companions like cherished loved ones. This story and these people are handled with abiding tenderness, allowed to float along and reveal themselves at an unhurried pace that lends enormous domestic authenticity to the action.
“Dear Frankie” is a story that needed that kind of affection, a fragile tale that easily could have swirled off into syrupy sentiment. While the film has an elegiac tone and spins a mournfully sweet drama of family bonds tested and renewed, it remains firmly rooted in the bleak industrial grit of the Scottish seaside port where it is set.
Frankie (Jack McElhone) is a 9-year-old deaf boy perpetually on the move with his mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), and grandma (Mary Riggans). They never stay long in one place; Lizzie and her mother have reason to hide out in fear of Frankie’s absent father.
Unable to bring herself to share the cold truth with Frankie, Lizzie has concocted an elaborate fantasy about a distant dad sailing the seas on a commercial vessel. Frankie writes regularly to this make-believe man, Lizzie intercepting his letters from a post-office box and replying with detailed correspondence of his father’s travels.
The ruse is meant to shield Frankie, but it also becomes an emotional salve for Lizzie in understanding her son, who can talk in faltering speech but rarely does.
“It’s the only way I can hear his voice,” says Lizzie.
A sense of inevitable fate hangs over the family’s latest move to the coast, Frankie excitedly relating to his father that they now live on the sea. When the ship Frankie’s father supposedly sails aboard schedules a port call in their new town, Lizzie decides to take the deception to a higher level.
Her friend Marie (Sharon Small) hooks her up with an acquaintance (Gerard Butler), a seaman willing to pose as Frankie’s father in exchange for the few pounds Lizzie can scrape together.
What follows is a gloriously understated expression of maternal devotion so deep that it’s blind, and, well, the startling kindness of strangers.
Screenwriter Andrea Gibb, who drew on her own experiences in childhood writing letters to her father while he lived overseas, has fashioned a richly nuanced tale from the sparest of scripts, exposition held to a minimum in favor of awkward silences infused with meaning.
So much of “Dear Frankie” is told in the stillnesses, the gazes among characters, and first-time director Auerbach could scarcely have found a cast more suited to that end.
Mortimer’s fathomless eyes register every imaginable damaged-goods emotion, fear giving way to anger, suspicion giving way to utter surprise at the smallest of nice turns.
Butler, whose countenance was concealed behind a mask as the title character in last year’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” here puts on a stony cipher’s face which he lets crack at just the right moments as the stranger finds himself uneasily progressing beyond dad-for-hire.
Small and Riggans add wonderfully sympathetic support, while McElhone holds the film together with mute but willful zeal as Frankie gradually reveals how the child can be parent to the mother.