“Dear Frankie” (Path? Pictures) is Scot Shona Auerbach’s feature film debut, but she already has an ability that many experienced American directors haven’t mastered – filming a sad story without making it into mush. The movie begins with a family moving from one town in Scotland to another. Lizzie Morrison (Emily Mortimer, “Young Adam”) and her mother Nell (Marry Riggans) argue about whether or not this will be the last time, while Lizzie’s son Frankie (Jack McElhone) sits in between them. It’s clear that they’re running from someone. Frankie stays silent; he’s deaf.
Frankie narrates the movie through the letters he sends to and receives from his father, Davey, who his mother tells him is away at sea. He collects the stamps his father sends him and keeps a map on his wall tracking the progress of Davey’s ship. But we see that it’s actually Lizzie sending Frankie the letters and receiving his replies. Her invented husband writes about how much he misses her and Frankie; her real husband has nearly killed them and now chases them around the country.
Lizzie’s well-intentioned sham is put in danger when Frankie sees a notice in the newspaper that his father’s ship, the HMS Accra, will dock in their new hometown in a week. He makes a bet that his father will come see him. Lizzie isn’t ready to tell her son the truth, so instead she hires a stranger (Gerard Butler, “The Phantom of the Opera”) to play Frankie’s father for a day.
It’s almost unthinkable that this setup would go well. But the stranger, although he looks a bit like a hit man, turns out to be a friendly, caring father figure (this is Scotland, where father figures can smoke and drink a lot without being bad people). Frankie is delighted, and Lizzie and her fake husband form a real connection.
A movie about a single mother and her deaf son could easily be unbearably maudlin, but “Dear Frankie” never sinks into sentimentality. Auerbach lets the facts dribble out naturally over the course of the narrative, and the gray-green color scheme (Auerbach also did the cinematography) gives the movie a calm, dignified feel. The script is occasionally tired, as when Lizzie yells at Frankie, “I’m the one who’s still here,” but the solid acting makes up for the flaws.
Auerbach is sympathetic to her characters but not condescending. When a schoolmate writes “Def Boy” on Frankie’s desk, Frankie just smiles and corrects the spelling. Lizzie isn’t a perfect mother; she’s trying to protect her son, but she’s also manipulating him. Both actors play tricky parts well; Frankie is never too precocious or too cute, and Lizzie is never a saint.
In the end, Lizzie confronts her real husband (Cal Macaninich), and their meeting is an explosive conflict in a film that’s been coasting along in low gear. It’s a powerful contrast to the low-key relationship between her and the stranger.
That relationship is almost too low-key. Both characters are more preoccupied with Frankie than each other; it’s a child’s fantasy of an adult couple. Maybe Auerbach underplayed the love story to avoid clich?; at points she tries so hard to avoid melodrama that she skimps on the action. As a result, Dear Frankie is charming but slender and a little flawed (at 102 minutes, it’s also quite short). But even with its faults, “Dear Frankie” is miles ahead of most Hollywood tearjerkers.
“Dear Frankie” opens in Friday in Washington, D.C.