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Film review

Dear Frankie: Reel kids

Two movies, one from Scotland and the other from Japan, offer thoughtful portrayals of children rather than Hollywood's stereotypes.

Published April 14, 2005

[Photo: Miramax]
Gerard Butler, left, and Jack McElhone star in Dear Frankie.
[Photo: IFC Films]
Hiei Kimura in a scene from Nobody Knows.

It's a hard-knock life for children in American movies these days. Those who aren't imperiled by supernatural forces are likely facing danger from human monsters, or serving as preternatural mouthpieces for grownup perspectives. Kids generally aren't allowed to be kids, except in sugary films such as Because of Winn-Dixie that few moviegoers care to see.

Overseas, it's a different story. Actually, two different stories from Scotland and Japan sneaking into art-house theaters Friday, and likely sneaking out in a week or two. A pair of thoughtful dramas with youthful dilemmas at center stage remind us that children are people, too, not just props.

The easiest for American tastes to digest is Shona Auerbach's Dear Frankie, because its dialogue doesn't require subtitles and the sentimental components are easy to swallow. Frankie, a deaf boy played with uncommon assurance by Jack McElhone, lives in a financial crunch with his mother and grandmother while his absent father is supposedly working on a transport ship. Frankie and his "da" regularly exchange letters, and the boy tracks the ship's worldwide course on a wall map.

Frankie doesn't know his mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) is writing those letters, posing as a caring father who doesn't exist. She can't bear to tell her son the truth, so she lies with the best intentions. Her bluff will be called when the ship she thinks is fictional docks in their hometown. She hires an unnamed stranger (Gerard Butler, The Phantom of the Opera) to spend a day with Frankie, then he'll sail away, prolonging the ruse. One day turns into two, then possibly something deeper.

It's easy to imagine Dear Frankie remade for American audiences, with an overly earnest Ben Affleck and an incomprehensibly lonesome Sandra Bullock. Frankie would be an automaton like Dakota Fanning. Edges would be smoothed, conclusions would be drawn in the first reel and nobody would care.

But Auerbach and screenwriter Andrea Gibb handle these circumstances with such understated grace that sap becomes special. Not perfect, but deeper, more affecting than U.S. moviegoers are accustomed to seeing. It's easy to guess what happens, but we're hooked anyway. A last-reel twist almost spoils the effect; we're waiting for something to go wrong with such a delicate story. Then, almost magically, the performances pull us through the cumbersome moments, resulting in a pat finale that honestly feels good.

Things aren't solved as easily for the children of Nobody Knows, loosely based on the true story of four Japanese children regularly abandoned by their mother (You) and surviving on their own. Their landlord only knows about the 12-year-old brother, Akira (Cannes festival award winner Yuya Yagira). His younger siblings must hide in the apartment, with Akira serving as father and provider.

Writer-director Koreeda Hirokazu doesn't pile up perils for the children. Yet there are tense passages of potential accidents and discovery that, combined with the young actors' appeal, are grabbers. The movie is too long, but the leisurely pace is appropriate. We feel the children's monotony, and knowing this situation will only be solved when they grow up lends a tragic feel to their beaming smiles.

Hirokazu deftly sets up the mother's desertion, with scenes of maternal joy and playful deceptions making her final exit more crushing. Akira's perpetually brave face gets more dramatic, not because Yagira tries harder but because the situation is so convincingly developed. It's as if Hirokazu didn't show Yagira the last pages of the script, to keep him from skipping ahead with his performance.

With its English subtitles and slow rhythms, Nobody Knows will be a tougher sell to U.S. moviegoers than Dear Frankie. It's a better movie, but perhaps not better entertainment. The American version would pump up the high jinks and wisecracks; Cheaper by the One-third of a Dozen, perhaps. In the case of both films, the notion of what they could be in the wrong hands makes everything a little more right.

Dear Frankie

Grade: B

Director: Shona Auerbach

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Gerard Butler, Mary Riggans, Sharon Small

Screenplay: Andrea Gibb

Rating: PG-13; profanity, mature themes

Running time: 105 min.

[Last modified April 13, 2005, 10:30:05]

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