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Safe Harbor 

by Cole Smithey

Debut director Shona Auerbach's touching story of a single mother and her hearing-impaired son was a charmer at last year's Cannes Film Festival but got caught in a release date abyss prolonged by the split between Miramax and Disney. The supremely understated Emily Mortimer (Notting Hill), playing the mother, must constantly change her address in order to avoid an abusive ex-husband who continues to stalk her. But Lizzie's most immediate concern rests with providing hope for her deaf son Frankie (Jake McElhone) by fueling a white lie about his dad being a crewman on a cargo ship sailing around the world.

Lizzie ghostwrites letters from Frankie's ideal father until the ship that he evidently sails on docks in Glasgow harbor, forcing a dilemma on Lizzie. Although the story is objectively fraught with sentimental pitfalls, Auerbach and her distinctively talented cast embody the characters with a guileless purity that puts nuance where you'd commonly see glad-handed self-reference.

Shona Auerbach is a former still photographer and as such brings a keen eye for the story's working-class Glasgow locations that have a timeless and rugged quality. When Frankie studies a global map, upon which he traces the routes that his dad's ship follows, we appreciate his need to imbue the outside world with an intimate knowledge that, however real or imagined, serves a practical purpose of contributing to the familial bond with his mother.

These aren't people who, like some Americans, verbally profess their love but rather consistently commit to actions that speak for themselves. There is something tragically tender about a mother ghostwriting letters to her son in order to protect him from a truth that she knows she must eventually reconcile him to when he is old enough to handle it.

Frankie befriends a contentious classmate named Ricky and invites him into his humble apartment. Ricky soon seizes on information he gleans there to bait Frankie after he notices in a newspaper article that the ship Frankie's father is sailing on has arrived in Glasgow's port. Ricky bets with Frankie that Frankie's father won't attend their Saturday soccer game, which kicks the plot into action.

Gerard Butler (The Phantom of the Opera) plays the stoic no-name stranger who helps Lizzie with her little problem. It's here that Frankie begins to play his own hand at protecting his mother. We're never quite sure about how much Frankie may suspect about his mom's charade, but we see his buoyant efforts to fully enjoy her efforts all the same. Jake McElhone gives a brilliant performance as a child actor, speaking volumes of subtext and invariably giving voice to aspects of his mother's latent desires.

Frankie's hearing loss is an aftereffect of abuse he suffered as a baby from his actual father. For Lizzie, the disability is a daily reminder of the danger that all men pose, but it's also a character trait of her son that causes her to paint an ideal portrait of what Frankie's father should be. There's an instinctual therapy at work in Lizzie's actions toward her son, and he in turn responds instinctively to fulfill his part of her projected desires.

Dear Frankie is a movie that carefully exposes the universal onion layers of familial bond without ever leaving fingerprints on those layers. There's a lot to enjoy in this sophisticated movie.

Publication date: 04/14/05

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