It’s hard to believe that Melissa Leo has only moved to the forefront of the public’s consciousness relatively recently—more specifically since her Oscar win four years ago for her performance in Frozen River. With every role she inhabits, from her award-winning turn in The Fighter to her most recent effort in Francine, Leo provides a seasoned, lived-in naturalism that is as rarely displayed on screen as it is potent.
After years in prison, Francine (Leo) is given an opportunity at a new life when she’s released and begins work at a pet store. While she connects with the animals, she’s taciturn and unable to properly socialize with the customers. Her boss fires her, and as she leaves, she steals a puppy. As time passes, she accumulates more pets, and they take over her house.
Through a local church, Francine meets a helpful woman, Linda (Victoria Charkut), who introduces her to Ned (Keith Leonard), a handsome, rugged man. Ned offers Francine a second job caring for horses in a stable and again, she develops a strong connection to the animals. Romantic advances from both Ned and Linda lead to disaster and soon Francine finds herself jobless again. Somehow, she lands a position as a veterinary assistant at a clinic, but operating on animals and putting them to sleep becomes too much for her to handle.
Spare, minimal and voyeuristic, Francine has the feel of an observational documentary focused on a woman in pain who’s trying hard to get her life together without having the social skills to do so. The documentary feel is a testament to the strength of Leo’s spare, realistic, near-silent performance. It’s also explained by the fact that writers/directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky come from a nonfiction background. It’s a strength in the sense that the filmmakers know when to step back and simply let characters act and unravel. However, one wonders if their lack of narrative experience is the reason the story sometimes feels too unscripted and thin. As a viewer, we have no sense as to why Francine is as dysfunctional as she is. Is it mental illness? The product of being incarcerated? The product of whatever crimes she has committed? We never find out, and while Leo is often riveting to watch doing even the simplest of activities (like feeding pets), there’s a hole that begs to be filled. Strong visuals and the locale’s flavor help patch over this hole to some extent, as do strong supporting performances by mostly non-professional actors.
Though Francine may leave viewers wishing for a bit more to grasp onto, Leo and the filmmakers should be lauded for the power of the minimalist character study they’ve created.
Directors: Brian M. Cassidy & Melanie Shatzky
Writers: Brian M. Cassidy & Melanie Shatzky
Starring: Melissa Leo, Keith Leonard, Victoria Charkut, Dave Clark, Mike Halstead
Release Date: Sept. 13,2012