Frankie Starlight strives mightily (and succeeds intermittently) to couch itself in the warm, magical glow of a fairy tale. The story doesn't start out much like a fantasy, though: Beautiful young Bernadette (Anne Parillaud) watches four of her friends get blown to bits by a mine that washes ashore on a French beach during World War II, then witnesses the cold-blooded execution of her father by a German soldier, next discovers the corpse of her mother after the woman hangs herself out of grief, and finally stows away on an American troop ship by exchanging sexual favors for passage. The boat puts ashore in Ireland, where Bernadette finds herself penniless and pregnant. Yet Frankie Starlight never so much as flirts with the potential for tragedy or melodrama inherent in these calamitous scenarios.
In adapting Chet Raymo's 1993 novel The Dork of Cork for the screen, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (Brideshead Revisited) and screenwriters Raymo and Ronan O'Leary give short shrift to the devastating emotional impact of these traumatic incidents on Bernadette. Instead they focus on her survival skills, her spirited independence, and the lasting effect Bernadette's escapades have on the dwarf son -- Frankie -- she bears as a result of the bargain she struck to get to Ireland. The result is a light but basically enjoyable movie that could have cut a lot deeper if it had taken its dark side a little more seriously.
Frankie acquires a taste for stargazing from kindly Irish immigration officer Jack Kelly (Gabriel Byrne), who invites Bernadette and Frankie into his home after conducting a brief but passionate affair with the mysterious French beauty. Frankie's emerging opinion of the world incorporates both Jack's wide-eyed view of the cosmos ("We are all the ghosts of stars") and his mother's emphasis on self-determination. Eventually Frankie writes a novel combining tales of his mother's erotic misadventures with his love of astronomy. The book becomes a hit, conferring upon Frankie newfound financial and social status. Unfortunately, what Frankie wants most -- the love of a woman -- continues to elude him because he is a dwarf. Even streetwalkers ignore him.
But while Frankie Starlight the character indulges in a bit of self-pity, Frankie Starlight the movie assiduously avoids it, taking the quirky-romance route to a happy ending that justifies Frankie's belief in the magic of the galaxy. Happy ending notwithstanding, Frankie Starlight never caves in to the temptation to exploit its sadder moments for handkerchief-wringing value; Lindsay-Hogg and O'Leary convey Raymo's moving story without lapsing into pat sentimentality. Alan Pentony makes a memorable debut as the young Frankie, and Corban Walker is almost as good as Frankie the adult. Gabriel Byrne and Matt Dillon (who plays an ex-G.I. from the troop ship who looks up Bernadette after the war and falls in love with her) lend deft support. But Anne Parillaud doesn't fare as well; the actress looks strong-willed and alluring enough, but her performance never hints at what's going on behind Bernadette's stoic mask.
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Maybe Parillaud's distance reveals a larger problem with Frankie Starlight: This is supposed to be Frankie's story, but Bernadette emerges as the more interesting character. The filmmakers never seem to get a handle on her. Like the sailors on that fateful troop ship, they use her to satisfy their own immediate desires, but they couldn't care less about what makes her tick. Pleasurable voyage or no, that's a mistake.