Frankie Starlight

(Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Ireland/USA, 1995)


One of the more annoying trends in ’90s cinema was the craze for cloying, cosily nostalgic folk tales, such as Il Postino (1994) and The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) – usually with a dose of magic realism thrown in for good measure.

Perhaps the most strikingly escapist feature of such films is their pronounced mono-culturalism. They are blissfully happy to present bygone, simpler societies free of racial or cultural division.

Frankie Starlight is recognisably in this cute, folksy vein. By varying the standard ingredients a little, however, it manages to become quite touching.

Frank (Corban Walker) is a dwarf with a long-fuelled self-esteem problem. His life begins to change when he writes a book combining his knowledge of astronomy with the biography of his French-born mother, Bernadette (Anne Parillaud). Her story, extensively narrated in flashback, is a mélange of diverse characters, emotional attachments and national cultures.

The film unfolds by contrasting Frank’s somewhat grey, tawdry present with his quasi-magical past. Yet even the flashbacks have a tough, unsentimental aspect. Young Frank (Alan Pentony) moves wide-eyed in a milieu of poverty, familial breakdown and emotional dysfunction. The title of Chet Raymo’s novel on which the film is based, The Dork of Cork, captures far better the sometimes disarming and ribald tone of the tale.

It is a canny move to have a character in the film criticise Frank for rendering the female characters in his novel as romanticised fantasy projections. Because that is certainly what they are: both Bernadette and young Emma (Georgina Cates) are beautiful, melancholy angels, gripped by obscure death drives. The men in this world muddle through, while the women just waste away like Dumas’ Lady of the Camellias.

There are creaky and under-developed aspects in Frankie Starlight, such as the sub-plot involving Matt Dillon as Bernadette’s American suitor. The affected naïveté of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s direction is sometimes grating. But, almost miraculously, the film accumulates a store of moving human experiences.

And, in the end, it is Frank’s prosaic life in the present – not his poetically tinged past – that holds the sweetest reward for both him and us.

© Adrian Martin June 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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