Dear Frankie, Up and Down opening Friday

I was just reminded that a couple of good films that I caught at last year’s film festival are opening in Canada this coming Friday. Here are the rather informal blurbs — not reviews, as such — that I wrote about them at the time:

Dear Frankie (UK, 105 min.) is a modest but charming film about a woman (Emily Mortimer) who hires a man to pose as the father of her 9.5-year-old son. The son, you see, has been writing letters to his dad, who he believes has been sailing the world for years, and the son has been receiving letters in return — but the fact is, the person answering his letters all this time has been his mother, and not his father. (Exactly WHY the parents split up is one of those things the film does not reveal at first.) Then, mere days after moving to a new town by the sea, word comes that a boat bearing the name of the ship on which Frankie’s dad supposedly works is on its way — and so the mother looks for someone to pretend that he is Frankie’s dad. A somewhat contrived set-up, but once you swallow it, the rest of the film goes down pretty easy. I’m a sucker for films about the special friendships that sometimes form between children and grown-ups, and the guy who poses as Frankie’s dad is a believably rugged but sympathetic individual. On the other hand, I have a real resistance to films which revolve around major deceptions, and I always dread that moment at the beginning of the third act when the truth comes out and someone yells “YOU LIED TO ME!” at someone else, so I was afraid we would have to endure that sort of thing here, too … but it never really happens. Indeed, the ending of the film is a bit of a cheat, that way, but I actually LIKE the fact that the film avoided those sorts of formulae, even if it had to cheat a bit to do so. The film, which was written, directed, and produced by women, definitely has the feel of a crowd-pleaser, but it doesn’t push our buttons too hard. I liked it.

. . .

Last night, I caught Up and Down (Czech Republic, 108 min.), the latest film from Jan Hrebejk, whose Divided We Fall a few years back was easily one of my favorite films of the year in which it was released here. His new film is once again concerned with questions of racism and parenthood, but where the earlier film was set during the Holocaust and softened by religious symbolism, the new film is set in the present day and ends on a somewhat more ambiguous and even troubling note. The characters include a professor who realizes he doesn’t have long to live, so he wants to divorce his estranged wife and marry the woman he’s been living with and raising a daughter with for the past 18+ years; the estranged wife herself, who has a marvellous collection of kitsch and who curiously insists on wearing a wig when her real hair seems to me to be much better; the son of the professor and his estranged wife, who has lived in Australia for years and returns to Prague for a tense meeting between the professor’s two families; a woman desperate to be a mother who buys a “black” or gypsy baby on the black market; the husband of that woman, whose life has been so full of obstacles and weaknesses, including a penchant for violence, that he has rejected God in favour of a racist club of soccer fans; and the black marketeers themselves, who smuggle refugees across the border, hock various stolen items, and so on. I am struck by how the film manages to portray certain characters as the utterly pathetic people they are, yet still engenders a remarkable degree of sympathy for them; perhaps it is not the people so much as their situations that are pathetic, and which evoke our sympathy. One of the puzzling paradoxes of this film is that we really want the soccer fan to support his wife in raising their child — it might even prompt him to turn his back on his racist friends! — and yet we know that the child’s true mother is desperately searching for him, and we want the child to return to HER arms, too. Some of the humour at the expense of the racists runs the risk of entrenching just a different set of racial stereotypes (e.g., never attack an Asian tourist, he just might know martial arts!), and some might also quibble with the portrayal of Australia as a land of racial harmony, but the film is generally a rather compassionate look at some of the ethnic and political tensions facing the Czech Republic today, and I liked it.

Hmmm, I just realized that both blurbs end with the words “I liked it.” A bit trite and redundant, that, but I saw them several days and blurbs apart from each other! Anyway, Up and Down opens Friday at the Carlton in Toronto and the Tinseltown in Vancouver. Dear Frankie, alas, opens in Toronto only, for now.

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