Saint Frances (2019)

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I’ve written before about how the Sundance Film Festival is something of an automatic seal of approval for me and my personal taste, and the same can pretty much be said for SXSW Film Festival as well. With previous faves like Booksmart, Atomic Blonde and Short Term 12 all making their mark at SXSW, I’m always ready for the next great thing to come along with the annual festival’s backing behind it. Helping to bridge these last few weeks of at home cinema confinement is Saint Frances, winner of both the Audience Award and the Special Jury Award in 2019.

Written by and starring Kelly O’Sullivan, Saint Frances tells the story Bridget (O’Sullivan), a 34-year-old waitress whose life suddenly enters a complicated period when she simultaneously has an abortion and takes the job of nanny Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), a sweet and sassy six year old. In a sort of typical indie ‘dramedy’ type of way, the narrative explores both ends the spectrum, the highs and lows of everyday life mixed with a good dose poignancy and all important quiet humour that makes it endlessly enjoyable from start to finish.

Given the premise, it’s important to make clear that Saint Frances isn’t any kind of morality tale about missed opportunities of motherhood or regrets. There are so many themes touched upon in the short running time that that particular event in Bridget’s life is but one of the many different angles explored across the plot. In that sense, Saint Frances feels like a very ‘modern’ story, showing the viewer that whilst terminating a pregnancy is indeed a big life event, it doesn’t have to be the thing that defines the rest of your existence, nor does it have to mean that one’s capability for ‘mothering’ and care taking is diminished.

From messy romantic decisions in Bridget’s life to glimpses of marital stress and post natal depression in Frances’ two mums, the film has a lot to say about different stages in one’s love life, and everything is done with such a light and breezy touch that you don’t realise you are engaging with fairly heavy and serious topics until you really think about it. This is the kind of tone that the very best indie dramedies carry, and Saint Frances certainly manages to do it with ease.

The film is consistently funny even in its more serious moments, and it evokes that very particular ‘finding my place’ vibe that good Millennial targeted stories possess. There is an underlying seriousness to the narrative, but the film never takes itself too seriously. A really important trait to have.

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Pulling double duty as writer and star, Kelly O’Sullivan is effortlessly relatable as Bridget. Only slightly older than myself, the character is a very recognisable one, and O’Sullivan perfectly executes and exudes all of the worries and anxieties that are specific to a woman in the late 20s/early 30s bracket. As a writer she has expertly captured the particular predicaments of such an age, and her performance brings those predicaments in a really engaging and impressive way. Bridget is by no means a hapless, ‘class clown’ type character, she’s completely identifiable if not in yourself then certainly in somebody that you know, and that is what makes Saint Frances such a relatable film in many ways.

As Frances, little Ramona Edith Williams gives what will definitely be regarded as one of the best child performances of the year. Young, but ‘wiser than their years’ child characters can often be grating in a precocious kind of way, but Williams is perfect in the role, packing just enough sass into her scenes to make an impact without becoming unbelievable! I’ve seen talk online of an Oscar nomination for the eight year old; I wouldn’t go that far, she doesn’t quite hit Jacob Tremblay in Room levels, but there’s no arguing that she isn’t excellent. Together, O’Sullivan and Williams make for a wonderful on screen pairing, at no point does the film feel clunky or laboured by a predominant adult/child duo.

Overall, Saint Frances is a real gem of an indie comedy drama. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that this is a straight up ‘abortion story’, it’s neither Never Rarely Sometimes Always nor Obvious Child, it’s a much broader, more wide ranging film on a story level than those examples. Some great, authentic, empathetic performances cap off a narrative that throws a lot of themes at the audience without ever feeling heavy-handed. Don’t let this one pass you by as cinema start to open back up, definitely make the effort to catch it at some point!

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