Frankie Review

Ira Sach’s Frankie is a light, lovely film about complicated family dynamics and coming to terms with mortality. With a formidable cast anchored by Isabelle Huppert, the sun-dappled setting and multi-generational storyline makes for a relaxed, enjoyable visit with this extended onscreen family.

Huppert plays, as she often does, a movie star, one named Françoise (Frankie to her friends) who is struggling with the return of an illness that she’s kept from all but those closest to her. She calls her family to the villa of her second husband, Jimmy (Brendan Gleason) in the picturesque Portuguese city of Sintra. She’s joined by her hapless son Paul (Jérémie Renier) from her first husband, a step-daughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), Sylvia’s husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and their teenage daughter Maya (Sennia Nanua).

Another invitee, Irene (Marisa Tomei) is a friend from the industry, invited to help give Paul someone to connect with in New York. An uninvited Gary (Greg Kinnear) joins along, a Second Unit DP on some star Star Wars film shooting locally that he’s begged off to connect in a more permanent way with his colleague.

There are echoes of the breezy travelogue films of Woody Allen or even Erich Rhomer without as much of the clever wit, yet almost implausibly we’re drawn into the family’s drama and via their various interactions. Much of this is down to the fine performances, particularly Huppert who drifts by with a quiet exhaustion that reflects her impending mortality. Yes this is an indulged and privileged lot, yet thanks to Sach’s breezy direction and the warm vistas we’re made to feel like we’ve been invited along for the journey.

This is a film of shifting gazes – a mother watching her children, a husband watching in turn while an ex-husband watched from above – visually emphasizing how these various relations and power dynamics are part of a cauldron called family. It’s an implausible group, this lot, yet somehow, despite the various arguments and misunderstandings, it’s one that feels inexorably linked.

Superficially there’s not too much going on save for the grumblings of this bunch, and Sach’s minimalist take will be offputting for many. But there are scenes both quiet and emotionally moving, most having to do with the dynamic between Gleason and Huppert. From his wiping away tears at a bakery, to a quiet snuggle scene, you can feel his reticence to let go just as she is steeling herself from what’s to come. It’s this undercurrent of anxiety on an existential level that makes the other challenges – Paul’s move to New York, Irene’s uncertainty about commitments, Sylvia’s marital breakdown – feel trivial in comparison.

Yet as the film shows these struggles are no less painful, even if inconvenient. Yet they too can be put aside, if briefly, in order to take in moments of community and beauty, sharing an experience of wonder, quiet and content that together they are stronger than apart, and that what makes a family is this very implausible, often problematic social contract that binds at the best and worst of times.

Frankie may lack the histrionics of a more heightened drama, and it lacks the zest of Allen or Rhomer’s similar dives into this emotional ocean. Yet with an engaged cast, emotionally accessible storyline and beautiful scenery, there’s quite a lot that is inviting about the film. We’re left with a feeling that it was better to know Frankie and her family even in this small window, and that is more than enough.   

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.