Saint Frances is a familiar story with some welcome signs of divine inspiration
Director: Alex Thompson Starring: Kelly O’Sullivan, Ramona Edith Williams, Charin Alvarez, Lily Mojekwu Running Time: 101 minutes
Being “real” is often one of the main aims of the indie dramedy; the gentle, sensibly chuckling low-budget-low-stakes affairs can pride themselves on being more connected to the genuine experiences of everyday life than contrived, overwrought Hollywood productions. Yet this kind of storytelling, chock a block at film festivals the world over, can take on their own stifling conventions and cliches, and the bad cases often present a reality that’s little more than the same platitudes of the big leagues, except mumbled. Saint Frances’ foundation of white slacker ennui doesn’t seem to offer much new on first glance, but through strong stains of period blood, ugly tears of postpartum depression and more, it does explore a number of truths and vulnerabilities with a welcome sense of honesty, the kind that too many films of this type end up glossing over with their Sundance-friendly optimism. Writer and star Kelly O’Sullivan and director Alex Thompson use a standard setup, but are happy to wander from it to more interesting places.
O’Sullivan plays 34 year old Bridget, a woman who increasingly doubts her own easy-going approach to life as more and more friends get married, buy houses, have kids etc. Bridget hasn’t quite mastered looking after herself yet, so how, the premise cutely asks, is she going to look after a kid? Bridget stumbles into a summer job of minding 6-year old Frances, the clever kid of affluent and progressive mams Maya and Annie and in the early going the awkwardness is apparent for a woman too old for babysitting, too young for nannying and in a similar age range to the other mothers of the cushy Chicago suburb. Frances for her part isn’t buying it. Coming from a home with a BLM sticker prominently in the front window and equal space for feminism and Catholicism for her parents, Frances is openly encouraged to be curious, questioning and expressive, and she pushes Bridget not just by doing things kids are too innocent to know not to do, but also things adults are too polite to get into.
Played by Ramona Edith Williams, Frances is a key presence in the film that could tip it over into twee indie fare, but thankfully is charming enough to keep on the other side of that line. She’s precocious, but in ways that a kid raised by these kind of parents would believably be; she acts like a cute kid and not like how a writer might imagine a cute kid to look. Williams tends to bring out the best in O’Sullivan as a performer also. Though they don’t get along at first, Bridget proves to be a welcome shake up to the life carefully set up by Frances’ seeming super-parents, slightly removed from the grown ups she feels insecure around relaxes Bridget up enough for a sweet and natural relationship to develop. Here O’Sullivan displays a charisma that’s much more welcome than the standard indie-huff she can fall into in other scenes.
Rather than ambling around in these sweet scenes alone, O’Sullivan and Thompson use them as a buffer and a contrast for more serious subject matter, going into messier, emotionally complicated places in women’s lives. Bridget matter-of-factly gets an abortion after getting pregnant by the younger Jace, not quite her boyfriend. The film is clear and confident about Bridget being sure of this decision, using the process more to look at her unwillingness to process it after the fact, avoiding follow-up care and conversation equally shows her unwillingness to process or probe much of anything: does she want to stay with Jace? Does she ever want kids if she doesn’t want them now? What does she want? Weaving this story through the development of her budding care for Frances opens up the character rather than railroading her down a traditional path of motherhood, her passive slacker grows by being presented with and prompted to deeper levels of empathy and understanding.
That compassionate tone stands to the strongest parts of the film, with Maya experiencing postpartum depression looking after her newborn son while Annie is busy with work and Bridget and Frances are on the sidelines looking in. As Maya, Charin Alvavrez does some of the film’s strongest work, her body language stiff with so many fears and doubts, her expressions constantly on the verge of cracking. While the story may be nothing new on the surface, in these elements it finds the most interesting things to say, allowing for complicated female characters, their problems explored in depth, a film where an interracial queer marriage can have problems but doesn’t have to blow up either, where a woman can have an abortion and not regret it at all, but still have feelings about it. The characters take root as people to root for in the film’s best moments, the worse for the intrusion of bits and pieces that we’ve seen time and time again in films of this nature. Bridget’s dalliance with a sleazy guitar instructor or her uneasy relationship with her parents don’t offer much, and the film leans a little on a sentimental montage or two between Frances and Bridget that feel unnecessary. The film’s cheap and cheerful acoustic guitar score plinks away, a constant threat of the cutesy quaint story Saint Frances keeps threatening to become.
But overall the film steers to a better place. It’s pleasantly character-oriented, its political viewpoints firm and considered, the lived-in points of view of developed people who are allowed to fail, sometimes allowed to succeed, and more importantly just to keep going on while these fates loom overhead. Frances and co are simply likable, and the young girl’s brassy good nature becomes not just something to nurture, but to emulate. If we want to protect the children because they’re the future, and we want them to grow safe and strong, confident and protected, then it stands to reason as adults we should treat ourselves with that some care.(3 / 5)