The heroine of “Saint Frances” often feels uncertain and confused as trying to deal with several complicated matters of her ongoing life, and I like the movie for observing her and her life matters with forthright honesty and a bit of sweet sense of humor. Never resorting to any cheap laugh or sentimentality, the movie engages us as depicting the human complexity of her and several other characters around her, and it is often alternatively funny and poignant as we get to know and understand them more.
In the opening scene, we see her listening to some guy who seems to be trying to impress and woo her at a party. As he rambles about a recent dream of his, Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) patiently listens him, but, alas, his interest in her is quickly turned off when she flatly reveals to him later that she is 34 and has earned her living via a rather menial job. Apparently quite embarrassed, he eventually walks away from her, but, fortunately, she soon comes to draw the attention of some other guy, and they become more serious about each other after their subsequent night sex.
Meanwhile, there comes a small change in Bridget’s life. She applies for a babysitting job, and we soon see her visiting one suburban house for her job interview. Her potential employers are a lesbian couple named Annie (Lily Mojekwu) and Maya (Charin Alvarez), and they need someone to take care of their 6-year-old daughter Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), because Annie has been busy with her work outside while Maya has been occupied with taking care of their second child who was born not so long ago.
When Bridget meets Frances for the first time during her job interview, Frances, who has been rather sulky as she has not gotten much attention from her parents, does not welcome Bridget much, and Bridget does not expect much because there are some other candidates for the job, but, what do you know, she is later notified that she is hired. Although she is not exactly an expert in babysitting, she is ready to handle her tasks because, well, she gets paid more than when she worked in a restaurant.
Of course, her time with Frances turns out to be more demanding than expected. As your average plucky troublemaker, Frances frequently gives Bridget problems to be handled, and that is probably the main reason why Bridget decides to have an abortion when she later discovers that she is pregnant. Besides her difficult financial situation, she thinks she cannot possibly be a good mother, and her boyfriend willingly stands by her decision after learning about her pregnancy.
However, her subsequent abortion turns out to be a little more complicated than expected. While it is easily done by taking some abortion pill, she later goes through a few side effects including occasional bleeding, and that makes her feel more uncertain about the aftermath of her abortion. Although her boyfriend tries to be more supportive, he unintentionally hurts her feeling at one point, and then her attention is drawn to some older guy who teaches music to Frances and other kids.
In the meantime, she also comes to see more of the strained relationship between her two employers. As Annie is frequently absent due to her busy work, Maya feels more isolated as struggling more with her postpartum depression, but she does not talk about her problem to Annie or anyone else, and that accordingly puts more distance between Annie and Maya. As a matter of fact, France has also sensed what has been going on between her parents, and there is a touching moment when she throws a discreet question to Bridget not long after witnessing the latest clash between her parents.
Not hurrying itself at all, the movie leisurely rolls from one episodic moment to another as deftly eliciting humor or poignancy from the painfully human sides of its main characters. While often feeling like her life has been going nowhere, Bridget comes to realize via her employers that life is messy without any perfect answer for that, and we are amused and touched as observing how she tries her best for not only herself but also others about whom she comes to care more than expected. In case of Frances, she is not a clichéd child character at all from the start, and her parents come to show more of their humanity through each own personal matters with which we can empathize just like Bridget.
Like any good film mainly driven by characters, the movie depends a lot on its main cast members, who are all solid in their respective roles. Kelly O’Sullivan, who also wrote the screenplay, balances her character well between comedy and drama, and she is particularly wonderful when her character tries to articulate her complex feelings later in the movie. Young performer Ramon Edith Williams holds her own place well besides O’Sullivan, and Lily Mojekwu and Charin Alvarez have each own moment to shine when their characters respectively become more honest about their emotional matters.
On the whole, “Saint Frances”, which won the Audience Award and the Special Jury Award at the SXSW Film Festival early in last year, is worthwhile to watch thanks to its sensitive storytelling and enjoyable performances, and director Alex Thompson, who previously made a number of short films, makes a solid feature film debut here. He and O’Sullivan demonstrate here that they are major talents to watch, and I will certainly be interested in whatever will come from them during next several years.