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A widow believes that a stray dog is inhabited by the spirit of her late husband in “Róise & Frank,” a gentle Irish Gaelic-language story set in a small coastal village. It is delicately told, sweet but never sugary. Peter Robertson’s cinematography includes judicious aerial shots to complement the more intimate images of the village, giving us a perspective that just could be heaven along with modest, lived-in settings. The exceptionally evocative score from Colm Mac Con Iomaire gently expands the storyline, with just a couple of simple ascending notes shifting the tone at the first significant encounter between the title characters.
Róise (Bríd Ní Neachtain) was married to her husband, Frank, for 40 years. She still feels lost two years after his death. Every day, she listens to his old voicemail message, just to hear his voice say, “I can’t take your call.” She barely speaks to anyone and cannot see that her neighbor Donncha (Lorcan Cranitch) would like to spend time with her.
At first, she shoos away the stray dog that follows her. But when he seems to connect to some of the touchstones of their life together, she remembers her husband’s last words: “Our story isn’t over yet, my love.” She calls the dog “Frank” and tells her son Alan (Cillian O'Gairbhi) that the dog is his father. Her world begins to open up. She shares her meals with Frank, sitting companionably together at her kitchen table.
Alan is a doctor. He is certain there is no such thing as life after death or reincarnation in any form. But others are comfortable with the idea, and it is endearing to see how the dog Frank becomes a valued member of the community. The human Frank loved the Irish sport of hurling. Frank the dog seems to love it, too, not just retrieving the ball but guiding Róise’s neighbor Mikey (Ruadhán de Faoite), a boy who is the youngest in his grade and often picked on by his classmates. When the kids on the school bus see Frank and Mikey practicing, two boys decide they will test their hurling skills with Frank, too. Soon Mikey has joined the team and Frank is an indispensable part of every match, encouraging them from the sidelines. The coaches add two words to the “No Dogs Allowed” sign: “Except Frank.”
Ní Neachtain gives a gem of a performance, the light returning to Róise’s face as Frank re-connects her to her memories and to what is going on around her. De Faoite is terrific, whether he is acting as his own announcer calling his practice shots or trying to hold it together when he is feeling shy but longing to be included. O'Gairbhi subtly shows us Alan’s difficulty with his own grief, and his scenes with Alan's baby daughter and with Frank the dog are lovely. Cranitch deftly handles what may be the film’s most challenging character. The small roles are filled with memorable moments, including a stirring locker room speech when the team is behind in a crucial game. Two highlights are Róise getting stopped by a policeman because Frank is not properly harnessed in the car and the same cop stopping Alan for the same reason. And the dog is a charmer.
Writer/directors Rachael Moriarty and Peter Murphy understand that grief is not just about what we remember about the person we miss but what we fear forgetting. When she first confides in Frank the dog, Róise says for some reason the memory that keeps coming back to her is of an unimportant day, a trip to buy a lawnmower. But she feels she is losing memories of times that must have been much more important. Frank the dog brings her back into the present.
As in “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” it is up to us to decide what is real and what is a metaphor for how people process loss. What is real is the authenticity of the characters and the way the dog, whoever he is, helps them to connect to each other and to us.
Now playing in theaters.
Bríd Ní Neachtain as Róise
Cillian O'Gairbhi as Alan
Lorcan Cranitch as Donncha
Ruadhán de Faoite as Maidhcí
Michelle Beamish as Anna
Claire O'Connor as Sinéad
Peadar Cox as Sonnaí
Deaglan de Paor as Cormac