Dear Frankie
a film by Shona Auerbach
written by Andrea Gibb

This first feature from British director Shona Auerbach is an accomplished and touching small film. While there is much about it that seems predictable, a keen ear for dialogue by writer Andrea Gibb and convincing characterizations from a fine ensemble cast lifts this "ordinary" story above the ordinary.

I saw this film at the recent (September 2004) Woodstock Film Festival. It had its US premier last May at the Tribeca Film Festival. It has been picked up for US distribution by Miramax, but as of this writing, their scheduled date for release is May of 2005, so it may be a while before you can see it in theaters.

The key to this family drama is the letters young Frankie (Jack McElhone) writes to his absent father. Frankie, who is deaf, is being raised by his mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), and grandmother Nell (Mary Raggins) in cities along the industrial coast-line of Scotland, while his father, apparently, pursues a career as a seaman aboard an international freighter, sending regular letters and a collection of exotic stamps to his growing son.

As the story unfolds we learn the secret behind the letters Frankie receives - they are written by his mother, who intercepts Frankie's letters and responds to them - and the reasons for her strange behavior. Eventually, perpetuating this ruse becomes a complication that forces a powerful transformation in Lizzie and in the family structure she has worked so hard to create and protect.

When the boat on which his father supposedly sails schedules a call at the port city where Frankie lives, Lizzie hires an anonymous stranger (Gerard Butler) to impersonate the father Frankie has not seen for so long that he does not remember him. This strategy has unexpected (but not unpredictable) consequences for all those involved.

The basic dynamic grows out of the conflict between security and risk; between the desire for safety and stability, and the need to develop and grow. Lizzie wants to protect Frankie from some of the painful parts of the truth about his life and family. She also feels the need to protect herself - both physically and emotionally - from the very real dangers of her relationship with Frankie's father.

At the same time, the very strategies that protect her also limit and imprison her. Her strong defenses do their intended job, but they also deprive both Lizzie and her son of an emotional contact that they want and need.

The film examines how such constructs come into being - often, as in this case, for very good cause - and how we tend to cling to them even in situations where they are no longer useful - where they have in fact become counter-productive. The struggle to get beyond such self-imposed attitudes, the risks we have to take to do so and the very real rewards of taking those risks make a story that can be compelling in any individual case in spite of its universal familiarity - as long as it is told with compassion, insight and conviction, as it is here.

In many ways, it is probably harder for a filmmaker to deal with such basic, mundane material than it is with "high drama." The common events of ordinary life are the raw material out of which clichés form. To make a low-key, true-to-life story about ordinary people without falling into banality requires a firm and sharply focused control. The simplicity of the emotions and situations depicted can make dramatic development seem manipulative. The individuality of the characters must be so distinct and engaging as to allow us to put aside our generalized perceptions and appreciate this particular struggle, of this particular individual, on its own terms.

This sense of uniqueness is something Auerbach and Gibb ably provide. The spare dialogue is simple and direct - not in a condescending way, but in a way that expresses complex emotions and ideas as people actually do, haltingly, in fragments and half-expressions, constructed with difficulty and uncertainty, feeling one's way toward meaning. There is nothing glib in the attitude the filmmakers take toward the characters' predicament.

On one level Frankie's deafness serves as a metaphor for the obstacles which we meet in life and his attitude towards his disability is one of the earliest clues we get as to where the film is going. When a classmate in the new school to which he has been moved tries to taunt him by writing "def boy" on his desk, Frankie cheerfully corrects his spelling. Through voice-over narrative in Frankie's voice (McElhone has only one line of dialogue in the film), we are given the ability to see through the surface of events to understand how they resonate for him. This device - which can distance an audience from a story - in this case actually draws us in to an identification with Frankie's point of view that promotes the very personal, intimate understanding that enriches the otherwise prosaic events.

Much credit must go to the cast. Emily Mortimer not only does the work of creating her own intricate characterization of an "ordinary" person, but it is clear in her interactions with Frankie how much she acts as a foil for her young co-star and how her intense investment in her character evokes a similar sense of authenticity in his.

This is a challenging task for an actor - to present an ordinary person. It has to be done with enough honesty and vulnerability to engage audience interest with a person one might pass in the street without a second glance, yet without over-dramatizing or inflating the character beyond their actual proportions. Mortimer, whose credits include Nicole Holofcener's Lovely and Amazing and the recent Young Adam, carries much of the emotional weight of the film with a naturalness and ease that belie the difficulties of her task.

McElhone, a boy of about ten or eleven, does a fine job of embodying Frankie's mixture of longing and self-restraint, and giving him enough dignity and independence that his growing affections don't seem artificial or sentimental. Children are often the weak link in this sort of a film, and it is to Auerbach's credit that she uses and guides McElhone so expertly.

Gerard Butler provides the pivot for the action, and his blending of inscrutability and barely-concealed tenderness is a winning combination. With very little dialogue, Butler manages to explain his character through the emotions that are reflected in his body language and in the fleeting expressions on his face. In one critical moment, as he simultaneously resists and surrenders to Frankie, he communicates more about himself through his reaction, as expressed in his posture and gestures, than he could in words.

Mary Raggins, as Lizzie's mother Nell, adds another note of genuineness with a heartfelt evocation of a concerned mother and grandmother who wants only the best for her family, but is unsure how to help them get it. As Lizzie's co-worker and friend Maria, Sharon Small provides an effectively grounding influence for the action in practical reality.

The production is smooth and professional. There is a fair amount of hand-held and steadicam work, which adds a sense of immediacy and realism to the action, but it is used only when called for and the static camera work and tracking shots follow the action without intruding on it.

The mood of the somewhat bleak, industrial landscape is effectively captured by Auerbach, who acts as her own Cinematographer, as a background for the growing emotional warmth of the action The framing of shots accurately reinforces the sense of intimacy in the relationships among the characters.

Dear Frankie is a story of individuals in a family trying to help, protect and heal themselves and one another. It is a common story, not the stuff of heroic legends, but one which repeats itself over and over in human experience. It's an adept exploration of everyday territory, in which new possibilities may yet be seen.

While I'm at it, I'd also like to plug another film that may be hard to see. Down to the Bone is a low-budget, locally-produced film that also screened at Woodstock. The film grew out of a film-school documentary project that won the prize for Best Short Film at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. It blossomed into a full-fledged fiction feature at the Sundance Institute's Filmmakers/Screenwriters Lab, where the script was developed.

Director Debra Granik, with her co-screenwriter Richard Lieske - on whose life the events in the film are partly based - has created a little gem of a film that deals frankly and unsentimentally with the realities of American life at the Millennial turning point.

Dead-end jobs, emotionally-arid relationships, drug-addiction and the strains and perils of trying to keep one's head above water and one's family together in a consumerist society that seems to have lost its moral direction and sense of meaning, shape the narrative. With compellingly naturalistic performances from Vera Farmiga and Hugh Dillon and a fine ensemble of actors and non-actors, the film is an evocation of the day-to-day struggles of a certain slice of working-class life that is reminiscent of the work of the Italian neo-realists and their contemporary successors, including England's Ken Loach.

Down to the Bone has not yet found US distribution, in spite of the good reviews it has received and its favorable reception on the festival circuit. It is a sad commentary on the state of the "movie business" that a film of this quality, which certainly deserves theatrical release, is having a hard time breaking in to a world dominated by Blockbusters and Megaplexes.

With good luck and coming off the good buzz that developed at Woodstock, we in this are may have the good fortune to see the film in our local independent cinemas, like the Spectrum 8. Images, Upstate and others. If it does get a run, I'd highly recommend that you go an see it.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z