Review: SXSW Audience Award Winner ‘Saint Frances’ is a Laser-Sharp Analysis of Femininity, Motherhood, and Love's Complexities
About midway through Saint Frances, I realized I was crying. Not just an appropriate-for-public single tear running down my face, but full-on covered in tears. I turned to my friend who was watching with me, and we squeezed each other’s hands, and we both nodded at each other like, “Did you know this movie was going to be so good? It is so fucking good!”
Honestly, “good” doesn’t feel like enough to describe Saint Frances, the biggest surprise I experienced out of South by Southwest, the winner of this year’s Narrative Feature Competition Audience Award, the movie I’ve been telling everyone about, and that I’m now telling you about, thank you very much, please keep reading. The film from director Alex Thompson and writer and star Kelly O’Sullivan will take you through an entire goddamn journey of emotion, it’s so insightful and eloquent and respectful and painful and affirming, a movie that analyzes that space between enjoying spending time with kids and also enjoying handing them back to their parents and walking away.
Are you a woman if you don’t want to have children? I’ve had this said to me (more than once!) and I’ve always struggled with an answer that isn’t just exasperated cursing, and that is the mindset Saint Frances explores: the limits society places upon femininity and its intersection with motherhood, the demands upon our bodies, the expectations both from other women and from men. Bridget (O’Sullivan) is suffering under the weight of all of that: The movie begins with her stuck in a terrible conversation with a 30something lamenting how terribly his life is going, as he sits in a large house he owns and discusses his cars and vacation properties and investments and numerous signifiers of mainstream success.
Bridget has her head cocked to the side, her body hunched in on itself, as nonplussed as body language can get—and this guy picks up on none of that. (When he asks her “What do you do?”, and you realize he’s overshared all of this information to a stranger, whew, I was reminded why I fear parties.) But Bridget lives a lot of her life like she’s not trying to be noticed, or at least, not trying to be bothered, and she isn’t the kind of person who can be anyone different from who she is. She’s late to a job interview for a summer nannying job because of a one-night stand the night before; she makes several missteps during the interview itself; and then it’s revealed that she’s pregnant from that very one-night stand. The guy she’s been sleeping with wants to talk about his feelings after being shocked that she’s not on birth control, but at 34, Bridget is tired of other people telling her what to do. She’s tired of men assuming that she’s on birth control when they don’t want to use condoms; she’s tired of her dead-end waitressing job; she’s tired of not knowing who she wants to be. She’s already grown up. When does life happen?
Things take a turn after two major events in Bridget’s life: When she decides to get an abortion, and when she unexpectedly lands the job nannying 6-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams), who is being raised by mothers Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu) in an affluent Chicago suburb, not far from where Bridget attended Northwestern University for a year. Those two choices shape Bridget’s summer as she deals with the lingering physical effects of her procedure and with learning how to care for the cherubic, adorable, whip-smart Franny, who asks Bridget about her period and who has been taught by her mothers to be curious and kind. But even she can’t sugarcoat the fact that Bridget doesn’t seem right for this job: “You’re not good at anything,” she says, in a moment of that sort of perfect clarity that only children can provide.
You would expect Saint Frances to go in a typical “Bridget decides to change her life and become a mother because her relationship with Franny is so monumental” direction, but what O’Sullivan does with her painfully insightful script is reject the obvious route and go for something more empathetic. Bridget doesn’t just bond with Franny but with Maya and Annie, too, as she realizes that there are bonds between them, commonalities of womanhood, that inspire her. She’s blunter than Maya but not as refined as Annie, and yet their choices—deciding to get married, settle down in a homogeneous suburb, raise two children, face racism and sexism and homophobia dead on just by existing—are undeniably brave. And together they raised Franny, a little girl who looks at Bridget not with the slightly disappointed gaze of Bridget’s own parents or the judgmental sneer of the old classmates she runs into, but a wide-eyed openness, a gentle trust. That relationship just punched me right in the heart.
Aside from that emotional impact, though, Saint Frances is jarringly funny, approaching issues about women’s bodies—menstruation and pregnancy, in particular—with a mixture of subversion and frustration. When Bridget says she doesn’t use birth control because she’s been using “this method” for eight years, you realize what she isn’t saying are the words “pull out,” which inspire a laugh but also a painful groan. The same goes for when she snaps at a suitor who calls her a Millennial “I’m on the cusp,” and when she complains after receiving a sonogram, “I hate how they compare it to cute things.” None of what Bridget is saying is wrong, necessarily; instead, she’s a voice speaking against all the ways society dictates how we feel about ourselves. We should be embarrassed by our periods, we should apologize for our blood, we should only look upon pregnancy with adoration, we should be responsible for our bodies while men don’t have to do jack shit. Sound familiar?
The strong acting ensemble here—not just O’Sullivan, Alvarez, Mojekwu, and the magical Edith-Williams, but also the men in Bridget’s life, Max Lipchitz and Jim True-Frost (Prezbo from The Wire!)—gets everything tonally right, selling both the comedic and the dramatic elements of O’Sullivan’s script. Thompson’s direction is thoughtful and unhurried, letting scenes linger so that the variety of emotional reactions to certain situations are displayed fully, treating nearly every character with patience. And altogether, Saint Frances is a film that can feature its protagonist making a statement like “I’m not an impressive person; I want to feel proud of myself,” without being too sugary or sentimental. The earnestness is an asset, Bridget’s mixture of disillusionment and hope is recognizable, and the script’s thoughtful questions about matriarchy and its intersection with femininity are worth considering over and over again. Saint Frances is a winner, literally and figuratively, and I’m sorry, I couldn’t end this review any other way.
Saint Frances, winner of the SXSW Narrative Feature Competition Audience Award, screened at the 2019 SXSW film festival.
Header Image Source: SXSW
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