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Frankie’s dad isn’t around. His mom and grandmom make him pack everything he owns into a rusted-out van as soon as he gets comfortable in a new place. He’s deaf. And if all that’s not bleak enough, he’s Scottish—a nationality that damns him to a lifetime of bad weather, bad teeth, and bad haircuts. So the pensive 9-year-old (Jack McElhone) spends his days standing on the seashore poking at rocks with a stick and writing missives to his perpetually seafaring father—except that it’s Frankie’s mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), not his father, who sends the boy made-up swashbuckling adventures in return. It’s a ploy both to hide the identity of Frankie’s real father and to catch a glimpse of the lad’s inner life, and in Dear Frankie, first-time feature director Shona Auerbach and scripter Andrea Gibb demonstrate that Frankie’s fable-writing ma isn’t the only one who’s good at manipulation. Their epistolary setup is merely a convenient way to jackhammer home the idea that the hearing-aid-shirking Frankie tunes out the real world, using the postal service as his solitary emotional outlet. The usually mute kid even gets to chime in with voice-over narration when his letters appear onscreen. Around the fifth shot of Frankie looking longingly out to sea, it’s clear that the movie aspires to subtlety but just can’t resist screaming, “Look at all this goddamn subtlety!” Still, this story of the moon-eyed child, the put-upon mother, and the constantly grimacing grandma (Mary Riggans) does provide some small pleasures. The actors, especially Mortimer, skillfully balance the two predominant British movie character modes, working-class dismay and working-class whimsy. And when Lizzie hires a mysterious stranger (Gerard Butler) to cheer Frankie up by playing papa for the day, all the wouldn’t-it-be-cool-to-have-a-real-dad emotional buildup actually pays off. As Frankie frolics on the seashore and eats an ice-cream sundae with his fake father, you’ll find it surprisingly easy to tune out the real world, too.

—Josh Levin