Rating: (3 stars)
At times, the vacationing family at the center of “Frankie” seems to have chosen its picturesque setting — Sintra, Portugal — less for its beauty than its ability to encourage simmering tensions to bubble to the surface.
At least that’s what a viewer might take away from “Frankie,” a family drama from director Ira Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, his frequent collaborator. Most of the story elements — a looming cancer diagnosis, emotional distance between spouses, sibling rivalry — will be familiar to even the most casual filmgoer. But thanks to a superb cast and a welcome strain of comedic energy, “Frankie” turns out to be more than a pretty travelogue with melodrama.
At the head of the cast is Isabelle Huppert, playing the title character, a well-known screen actress who has called her family together in Sintra for a host of reasons, some of which will remain opaque until the film’s final act. Huppert is one of today’s most versatile actors; just contrast her over-the-top performance in this year’s schlocky psychological thriller “Greta” with her acting here, which consists largely of silent grimaces that speak volumes. The film’s placid pace mirrors her contemplative state.
The gathering is a large — and slightly convoluted — one, and it includes Frankie’s ex-husband Michel (Pascal Greggory), who has come out as gay, and their son, Paul (Jérémie Renier); as well as her current husband, Jimmy (an underutilized Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter from an earlier relationship, Sylvia (Vinette Robinson). Sylvia is mulling a divorce from her husband (Ariyon Bakare), who comes off like a man who knows something is amiss but won’t admit it. Their restless daughter (Sennia Nanua) takes off on a day trip to the beach, where she meets a handsome stranger.
And that’s not all: Frankie hopes to fix Paul up with a hairstylist friend (Marisa Tomei), who — to Frankie’s dismay — has been joined in Sintra by a
well-intentioned if clueless suitor (Greg Kinnear). Luminous as always, Tomei enlivens all of her scenes, whether reacting to her gentleman friend’s shambling advances, a sudden revelation of sad news or the suggestion that she marry Paul. “Could you see yourself getting married?” Paul asks her. “Not to you,” she replies, wincing.
In one of the movie’s few nods to the outside world, two of the characters are said to be taking a break from the set of a new Star Wars film. At times “Frankie” seems to be on the verge of social satire, highlighting the characters’ economic privilege. But Sachs and Zacharias fail to place their story firmly in the context of the wider world. When a tour guide (Carloto Cotta) shows up, it is largely to comment on the turbulent family dynamics.
Much of the movie’s pleasures lie closer to the surface. Admirers of Sachs’s previous films (including “Love Is Strange” and “Little Men”) will recognize his affinity for brevity and a hushed affect.
In the end, the film — which never leaves the vacation compound — robs viewers of closure. Instead of lapsing into rote sentimentality, Sachs suggests that the characters may have resolved — or perhaps simply accepted — their differences, out of earshot.
The movie doesn’t tie things up neatly. But as the camera pulls back, we are treated to something pretty: one last wide shot of that marvelous pale blue sky.
PG-13. At the Angelika Film Center Mosaic and Avalon. Contains brief strong language and some sexual material. In English, French and Portuguese with subtitles. 100 minutes.