We open on moving day, a road that Frankie (Jack McElhone) and his mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), have obviously been down before. The odyssey takes them to a small Scottish port town, where they quickly resume the banalities of life--grade school for him, a job at the local chips shop for her. Their main occupation, though, remains the fanciful correspondence between Frankie and his sailor dad. Fanciful insofar as Lizzie is the one penning the letters from sea. When the schoolyard bully (gulp...) informs Frankie that his father's ship is coming to town, Lizzie is faced with a moral dilemma: to tell or not to tell. She chooses neither, instead enlisting her friend Marie (Sharon Small) to help scare up a stand-in dad. Here we get the finest performance in an all-around well-acted film--Gerard Butler as the brooding, nameless stranger. Butler's solid 6-foot 3-inch frame (last seen romping through "Tomb Raider 2") is the masculine ideal, but he carries it softly and memorably.
"Dear Frankie" has a few surprises, but Andrea Gibb's script plays it pretty straight. Lizzie, of course, is running from something, and her subterfuge cannot last with Frankie. When the denouement comes, it is at once surprising and inevitable--as if it had to happen that way, but still you don't see it coming. That is the mark of a satisfying and well-directed story. Starring Emily Mortimer, Gerard Butler, Sharon Small and Jack McElhone. Directed by Shona Auerbach. Written by Andrea Gibb. Produced by Caroline Wood. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for language. Running time: 104 min