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'Frankie' Is Truly Dear

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page WE34

I'M A SUCKER for daddy movies.

I can trace the onset of my hypersensitivity to such films (meaning I get misty-eyed and inarticulate anywhere near stories revolving around the relationship between a father and child, especially a boy) to the birth of my own son 5 1/2 years ago. The first symptoms became apparent barely eight months later, during a screening of the 2000 sci-fi thriller "Frequency," which concerns a man who has stumbled upon the ability to communicate with -- sniffle, sniffle -- his dead father through ham radio.

Now what was I saying?



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Oh, yes. Since then, this condition has flared up almost every time I watch something dealing with the bond between a boy and his dad, with the notable exception of garbage like the execrable "Son of the Mask." Look, I said I was susceptible, not stupid.

Recently it hit me again during a screening of "Dear Frankie." Set in Scotland, the surprisingly charming tale centers on a cute 9-year-old boy, Frankie (Jack McElhone), whose mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), has been on the run from the boy's father for years, ever since the old man hit Frankie hard enough to make the boy go deaf. (Wait. Before you say anything, I know it's manipulative. And I don't care.)

All these years, Lizzie has been sheltering Frankie, who, having been too young at the time of the incident, never learned the truth about his father's abuse. Thanks to the fake letters that Lizzie has been writing to Frankie from his absent "father," who Frankie thinks is a globe-trotting seaman aboard a cargo ship, Frankie still has a good relationship with his imaginary parent. The problem is that dad's ship is actually about to come in, docking in Frankie's town any day now -- without, of course, dad on it.

Enter the fake father (Gerard Butler), a stranger Lizzie hires to act as Frankie's daddy for a day, courtesy of a recommendation from Lizzie's boss in the fish-and-chips shop (Sharon Small). Wouldn't you know it? The stranger turns out not just to be great with the kid (after some initial awkwardness that could be explained away by the fact that he hasn't seen his "son" in eight years), but to be tall, dark and handsome, too. Something for Frankie and something for mommy.

I know, I know: way too easy.

Actually, it isn't. I'm pleased to report that, within this overly familiar trope, there's plenty of room for small surprises, not the least of which are delightful, understated performances all around. Guided by Shona Auerbach's sensitive direction, screenwriter Andrea Gibb's story steers well clear of happy-ever-after-land, while still managing to promise a brighter, if less starry-eyed, future for the protagonists.

Be forewarned, though. For all but the stone-hearted, it's just too darn hard to resist saying "awww" every time Frankie hugs the man hired to play his daddy. There's something about the special connection shared by a boy and his father (even a fake one), and the quiet way "Dear Frankie" plucks that sweet tune, that just may make a sucker out of you.

DEAR FRANKIE (PG-13, 104 minutes) -- Contains some vulgar language. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.


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