Anyone feeling stuck in a rut will appreciate “Saint Frances,” Alex Thompson’s sensitive feature debut, which earned both the Audience and Grand Jury awards at SXSW last year. Though he focuses on one small season of one woman’s life, the details don’t go unnoticed.
Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan, “Sirens”) is used to the patronizing pity in people’s eyes when she admits she dropped out of Northwestern after a year. When she tells them she’s 34, single, and works in a diner. When she stands in awkward silence, after someone pushes her to admit what she really wants with her life.
If she knew, maybe she’d be doing it already. Or maybe not. But either way, the issue isn’t that her meandering path is making others unhappy. After all, none of the married, professional, parenting people she knows seem especially content.
Certainly not Annie (Lily Mojekwu) and Maya (Charin Alvarez), a Catholic, multiracial lesbian couple who hire Bridget as their nanny. Their brilliant six-year-old daughter, Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), is trying to make sense of all the chaos around her: a new baby brother, parents who fight more often, and this strange woman who is suddenly taking her to school and the park all the time.
O’Sullivan, who wrote the script, works hard to stay focused within her micro-universe. Sometimes this means the pacing is slow and the suburban-Chicago imagery feels deceptively ordinary. But the memorably empathetic depictions of everyday joys and pain are most often found in the connections between people. So a generic kitchen becomes a crucial meeting place, and a noisy playground suddenly turns into a battleground. That Bridget is lost is never in doubt; that her guideposts are the other women in her life becomes increasingly clear with each misstep and stumbling recovery.
The filmmakers also do a nice job depicting the very millennial relationship between Bridget and Jace (Max Lipchitz), a laid-back beta-dude in his mid-20s. He suits her because they’re on the same track, despite the fact that she’s nearly a decade older. But while a lazier script or actor might leave it at that, Lipchitz gets the chance to push Jace into unexpected places.
This is clear right away, when a post-party hookup turns graphically intimate in a way rarely seen onscreen. It’s not much of a spoiler to add that Bridget soon discovers she’s pregnant, since the decision she has to make impacts her throughout the movie. What’s more surprising, and gratifying, is the determinedly practical approach to such a controversial subject. We’ve seen lots of movies in which heroines grapple at great length with abortion emotionally, but very few in which they’re allowed to approach it on their own terms with absolutely no judgment.
One of those, of course, was 2014’s beloved dramedy “Obvious Child,” which does cast a long shadow even six years later. “Saint Frances” brings to mind plenty of other festival favorites as well, given that indies about a delayed coming-of-age are hardly uncommon. But if this movie doesn’t stand out for visual or thematic originality, it does make its own quiet case through consistently empathetic self-assurance. Bridget’s approach to an unplanned pregnancy is part of her story, but it doesn’t define her, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they do everything they can to expand our heavily-reinforced cultural assumptions.
Indeed, the movie’s most notable asset is the way it resists sketching any of its main characters with a single, easy-to-grasp definition. This does make the exceptions stand out, like the designated villains who feel particularly cartoonish as they berate Maya for breastfeeding in public or belittle Bridget for taking care of other people’s children.
But every one of the little-known leads is ideally cast, and fully committed. O’Sullivan cuts Bridget’s relatable vulnerability with a realistically selfish edge, Lipchitz upends their seemingly unbalanced relationship, and Alvarez deserves a raft of offers based on her moving portrayal of a silently overwhelmed mother.
The acknowledged star, however, is Williams. A 6-year-old figure skater and pageant winner, she is the essence of wide-eyed precocity and given plenty of room to prove it. It’s hard to know yet whether she has an unusually natural and charismatic onscreen presence or a rare talent. But she is an undeniable charmer, even when required to solemnly deliver such adult-written lines as “Every woman’s body is different.”
Then again, she’s not wrong. So, too, is every woman’s experience. And “Saint Frances” never forgets it.