Wednesday, May 22, 2019

2019 CCFF Review: SAINT FRANCES

by Patrick Bromley
This is my favorite movie of this year's Chicago Critics Film Festival.

On paper, Saint Frances shouldn't work: Bridget (Kelly O'Sullivan), a thirtysomething single woman who's life is something of a mess, is hired to work as a nanny for six-year old Franny (adorable Ramona Edith Williams). After a contentious start, the two form a bond that will cause them both to grow and change as people, with Bridget learning as much from six-year old Franny as the other way around. It sounds like the plot description of a least a dozen indie comedy dramas -- the kind of thing I'd expect to see at a festival, maybe be momentarily charmed, and then likely move on and forget.

Saint Frances is not that movie.

This film is special. Director Alex Thompson and writer/star Kelly O'Sullivan have made something with a familiar log line but which defies convention at every possible turn. They're not interested in movie conventions. They're interested in real life, and it's messy and hard and there's bleeding but it can also be beautiful. It's scary to take care of someone else, but it can sometimes be scarier to let someone take care of you. These are lessons learned by a number of the characters in Saint Frances, who struggle with being vulnerable enough to let someone take care of them. It's just one of many aspects of the film that resonate.

The Hollywood version of Saint Frances casts Amy Schumer in the lead and makes her a lovable fuckup who just needs to get her act together, which happens when a precocious kid teaches her responsibility. There's a little of that here, but the movie is so much smarter and deeply felt than that. O'Sullivan isn't just some stock comedy character, but a real person with real flaws and real gifts. Franny isn't a typical movie kid, either. She's wise beyond her years, sure, but when we meet her parents (Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu, both incredible), we understand exactly why Franny is who she is. It all makes perfect sense.
There are big laughs in the movie, to be sure, but it's the quiet moments that make Saint Frances such a gem, like a character having a long overdue cry when we least expect it, or a date getting interrupted by a roommate playing video games. In the post-screening discussion at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, director Alex Thompson said that his biggest influence was probably Hal Ashby. It shows. Saint Frances shares Ashby's gift for humanism, for exploring the entire range of human emotion and experience and avoiding cliches while doing it. There are images that we never see in movies, not because they're too shocking or upsetting but because there's this notion in society that certain things shouldn't be talked about. By being open about them -- by saying "this is who we are" -- Saint Frances connects us more deeply than we ever could have expected.

Saint Frances is wonderful: funny, moving, human. Tonally delicate and loving towards every single one of its characters, it's the kind of indie that gives indie movies a good name. As of this writing, the movie doesn't have official distribution. Hopefully that gets rectified soon. This is a movie that deserves to be seen in a big audience. It's an experience that's meant to be shared. I'm grateful to these filmmakers for sharing it with me.

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