Kelly O’Sullivan, author and star of the new film Saint Frances, understands that no judgment falls harder on a mom than the judgment of other moms, whether for breastfeeding in public or falling apart with postpartum depression in private. She understands a good deal more, too, because the movie has much on its mind in addition to the macro- and microaggressions that women perpetrate on other women. For instance: the complications of growing up millennial, of dating a younger man, of how much it hurts, and how it hurts in every way possible, to exercise agency over one’s body.
Alex Thompson directs Saint Frances with a frothy touch, adding a kind of breeziness to each frame, even when the narrative takes pit stops in moments of human despair. The relaxed filmmaking could read as casual flippancy for the film’s material, but Thompson’s direction cleverly reflects the informal quality of his protagonist, Bridget (O’Sullivan), a 30-something woman drifting through life without a plan or even a sky chart for navigating adulthood. She’s aimless, listless, inwardly aware that she wants more and that she’s capable of more, but out of touch with what “more” means or how the hell she goes about getting it.
Lucky for her, fate throws her a solid in the movie’s opener, when she meets and goes home with Jace (Max Lipchitz) at a friend’s party. He’s shockingly mature considering their age difference—he’s 26—and sweet as a peach, so after they spend the night together and start trading cutesy texts the next day, she feels her fortune turning. Better yet, she lands a summer gig nannying 6-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), the precocious daughter of Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu). Bridget has next to no qualifications for the work, but Maya’s pregnant with a baby boy, and beggars can’t be choosers. In fact, all three women take what they can get. Frances is a handful, Maya is coming apart at the seams and Bridget, to her dismay, is pregnant, her strategy of having really careful unprotected sex finally failing her with Jace.
It’s a mess, but a delightfully staged mess. O’Sullivan’s strengths as an actress outmatch her gifts as a writer, but there’s an economy to how the film unfolds, a sense of purpose to the details. Everything O’Sullivan puts on the page feels burnished on the screen. Even goofy throwaway bits, like one bonding session where Bridget and Frances, finally gelling after a chilly introduction, slather on make-up and rock out to Joan Jett, are necessary for facilitating personality and moving the story forward. O’Sullivan’s script walks a sentimental tightrope. One false step could send the whole picture tumbling headlong into schmaltz.
That doesn’t happen. Much as Thompson and cinematographer Nathaniel Hurtsellers’ aesthetic keeps the movie in a lighthearted ballpark, Saint Frances routinely circles around darkness: marital breakdown here, protracted post-abortion recovery there. The film’s refusal to adopt a lugubrious, aggressively grim outlook reflects both Bridget’s unfussed nature and a genuine respect for the experiences O’Sullivan and co. dramatize together. Empathy works far better as grease for Saint Frances’ many wheels, and sweetness, plus a healthy dose of easygoing humor, makes the heartache palatable.
Frankness helps, too. O’Sullivan and Thompson have an unadorned collaborative point of view, tongue in cheek but caring at the same time. They have a strong unified grasp of how awesome kids can be, how terrifying raising them is in theory and in practice, how much hard work goes into figuring yourself out when you’re all grown up with nowhere to go and how effortlessly one can stray from the path given the right temptation (Jim True-Frost, playing Frances’s silver fox of a guitar teacher). Stringing all of these thoughts and ideas into a coherent whole is the hardest work of all, and O’Sullivan and Thompson succeed with an abundance of charm and, best of all, no judgment. Saint Frances gets specific, stays lighthearted, but hits like a ton of emotional bricks.
Director: Alex Thompson
Writers: Kelly O’Sullivan
Starring: Kelly O’Sullivan, Ramona Edith Williams, Charin Alvarez, Max Lipchitz, Lily Mojekwu, Jim True-Frost
Release Date: February 28, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.