On videotape, which is how I saw it first, the British film DearFrankiemade a perfectly presentable, if unremarkable, kitchen-sink weepie. But while the big screen shows off the lyrical photographer in director Shona Auerbach, it also magnifies the shameless button-pushing of writer Andrea Gibb. Emily Mortimer, a beautiful and talented fawn in some danger of being trapped in Audrey Hepburn-land playing hapless gamines, is Lizzie, a Scottish single mother who's constantly on the move and has gotten into the habit of writing warm letters to her deaf son Frankie (played by the sweet-faced elf Jack McElhone) from a fictitious sailor father. When a ship with the same name as the one in her tall tales docks close to home in Glasgow, Lizzie must decide whether to show her hand or ratchet up the lies to shelter Frankie from uglier truths she feels he's better off not knowing. Enter, bearing gifts, an impossibly hunky stranger in the form of Gerard Butler, who will some day live down playing Angelina Jolie's love interest in the second LaraCroft:TombRaider.
Auerbach paints a graceful Glasgow you won't see in the films of Ken Loach or Lynne Ramsay, where seagulls scream and wheel above tall shipyard cranes rising against a blue-gray bay. But the movie's glib trafficking in illness, death and pinched little faces to jury-rig our emotional responses (Gibb was inspired by the equally likable, equally pandering Czech film Kolya) lost me at hello. If you want to cry honestly over a child's plight, better off to keep a sharp eye out for the Academy Award–nominated short documentary subject TheChildrenofLeningradsky,in which Polish activist directors Hanna Polak and Andrzej Celinski, as low-key and matter-of-fact as their hero Albert Maysles, track a bunch of homeless kids who are cobbling together a life of sorts in a Moscow garbage dump. No violins, but this passionate addition to the growing cinema of outrage over the world's abandonment of its children will break your heart many times over.
DEAR FRANKIEWAS DIRECTED BY SHONA AUERBACH; WRITTEN BY ANDREA GIBB; PRODUCED BY CAROLINE WOOD; AND STARS EMILY MORTIMER AND JACK McELHONE. THE CHILDREN OF LENINGRADSKY WAS DIRECTED AND PRODCUED BY HANNA POLAK AND ANDRZEJ CELINKSI. AIRING ON CINEMAX IN JUNE.