Film of the Week: Saint Frances
The word “raw” has a bit of a bad reputation when used to describe anything in cinema. It’s more than likely you’ll read it and equate it to “gritty”; the word feeling reserved for anywhere between kitchen-sink dramas, violent thrillers steeped in machismo, and the most devastating of melodramas. You don’t often see it used to describe a gentle comedy about childcare. Saint Frances, last years somewhat under-the-radar gem from writer/lead actor Kelly O’Sullivan (her real-life partner Alex Thompson directs), does a great service in reclaiming rawness as something uplifting. Unvarnished, natural, honest; O’Sullivan is wise enough to know that a script that earns those descriptors needn’t also exclude the charm and enjoyment found in the everyday.
O’Sullivan’s character Bridget derides herself as ‘not an impressive person.’ She is self-doubting, aimless, and very specifically “34”, and feels she has been stranded at a crossroads in her life far longer than she would have liked. There’s a dichotomy all of Bridget’s experiences throughout the span of Saint Frances. She finds herself at parties where successful men complain about problems that sound more like dressed-down achievements; yet there, she also meets and connects with another good-spirited server like herself. Most prominently, she finds herself organising an abortion with her sort-of boyfriend Jace (Max Lipchitz) and simultaneously experiencing the responsibility of childcare while working as a nanny to six-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), the daughter of kind but exacting upper-middle class mothers. The story is essentially Bridget reconciling all the conflicted emotions she feels in the gulf between each extreme in her life, while also trying to find her place within it; and considering whether that place is within a new, chosen “family”, as loose a definition as she wants that to be. There’s nowhere specific you expect the story to go, and it doesn’t. O’Sullivan isn’t interested in forcing dramatic narrative arcs and emotional life changing moments: Saint Frances is the patron saint of pleasant vibes and candid character studies.
Nate Hurtsellers’ cinematography captures the charming but honest feel wonderfully. Hand-held, catching beauty where it appears but focused—much like the script—primarily on characters, and conversations, framing them as if they are private, and real, and we have the luxury to be invited in on them. On the periphery to Bridget, O’Sullivan develops each secondary character into someone tangible. Jace is emotionally open and considerate, and is respectful of Bridget’s choices, and her body—whether that’s helping her through her at-home medication abortion, or not over-reacting when encountering her period blood. However, he’s also young enough to give her doubts about his maturity, and date night for them is often scored by his flat mates loudly playing video games. Frances isn’t characterised by any usual gimmick (cute, wise, prodigious), she’s mercifully just a kid. And this is the highest credit to everyone involved, especially in O’Sullivan’s writing: Bridget and Frances talk and interact like a real adult and child—or at least, how an adult should talk to a child, there’s one scene that lampoons the mollycoddling kid-speak by adults that plagues lesser work. Frances learns what a patriarchy is after an incident in a music class. She refuses to let Bridget take her pram on a walk, as she’s a big girl who won’t get tired. Of course Bridget has to carry her home soon after. I’ve experienced that exact situation before.
Saint Frances also finds the space to both normalise and make deft commentary on an array of topics, all unpreachy, made with consideration and candour through the characters. Reproductive rights, same-sex parenting, age-gap relationships, female malaise, mental health—and a lot of it is rooted in overcoming the feeling of shame around them. We witness postpartum depression, through both sufferer and supporter, through Frances’ mothers Maya and Annie (Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu), in an interesting parallel to Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s equally great Tully. As Maya walks around you feel the pervading exhaustion—and it is exhaustion—follow her: fatigue and depression don’t wait for one another to relent. Bridget has never been provided enough knowledge surrounding after care for a termination to understand how much bleeding is normal. Annie, exasperated, wonders ‘why does no-one know how to go to the doctor?’, speaking as much to both characters as she is to a culture that hasn’t done enough to encourage and inform on this.
O’Sullivan takes these pertinent topics, and with humour and tact, gives the audience a chance to interrogate their views on them. That’s what Saint Frances is, really: comedy as gentle character interrogation. Take when Bridget, Maya and Frances are accosted by another mother in a public park for breastfeeding. It threatens to devolve into prejudiced mud-slinging before Maya diffuses the situation in a genuine and productive manner, but not before getting one dig in:
‘I’m not going to feel sorry for feeding my son or loving my family in public.’
Sure, the woman retorts with, ‘well, y’know, you don’t have to rub our faces in it’, but it feels like some small progress. If even, the tiniest bit more compassion is brought to the world. And when Bridget thinks that someone standing up for their family, for her chosen family, is the ‘most bad-ass thing’ she’s ever seen, I’m not one to argue.