Writer and star Kelly O’Sullivan’s Saint Frances is as close as it gets in recent times to a realistic screen portrayal of what it is like being a female millennial at child-bearing age, navigating the pressures of societal expectations (marriage, kids etc). Directed by Alex Thompson, this poignant satirical tale does not shy away from depicting life’s ‘messier’ moments either, but just incorporates them within the natural course of events in a matter of fact way. It also does not attempt to resolve any of the key issues raised by the start of the closing credits. It simply presents them as everyday occurrences for the viewer to past comment on, if needs be. However, as refreshingly honest and playfully eccentric as this piece of fiction feels, there are moments any parent watching might feel greatly stretch the imagination, in order to tell the story. This then detracts from its authenticity.
What absolutely resonates most about Saint Frances in the current climate of global uncertainty in the coronavirus times is that every grown-up in it seems to be in an individual tailspin, wondering what the future has in store for them. We are introduced to a youthful-looking, thirty-something O’Sullivan as Bridget at a social gathering when she is forced to reflect on what she has achieved in life so far, after being misjudged by a fellow millennial. This awkward but bittersweet moment of humour is the catalyst for change to occur; a maturer Bridget emerges at the very end, but one equally still at a loss as to her destiny. O’Sullivan injects just enough detachment in her character for us to keep guessing at Bridget’s next response, so that when the emotional outburst arrives it is striking to watch. There is often a childlike quality to Bridget, one where she observes ‘the grown-ups’ around her, but does not necessarily think before answering.
Indeed O’Sullivan’s character starts out as emotionally immature, still trying to dodge full-blown adulthood and being very laissez-faire in attitude. After having a one night stand with a man in his twenties, she gets pregnant. She has no choice but to rapidly grow up after being given a second chance to nanny super self-assured and astute Frances. This in itself triggers the story’s funnier moments that are, thankfully, never wholly predictable or overplayed, like in other films in this genre. Every real-life parent has a stroller nightmare to tell, or turns around for a split second too long before disaster strikes.
Newcomer Ramona Edith Williams is sheer delight as Frances, impressively mastering nuances at such a young acting age and rifting off O’Sullivan. The little girl often appears wiser and possessing greater clarity of thought in any given situation than her adult role models, which allows Bridget and Frances’ friendship to feel believable. However, not far from the surface is a small, fearful person yearning for greater adult guidance, after Frances has so obviously been made to grow up far too soon for her tender years. In the end it is truly satisfying to watch both Bridget and Frances help each other gain the missing attributes they both so desperately need to tackle life after the summer break: confidence and maturity for Bridget, and a return to lost childhood innocence for Frances that will allow her to go off and mix with her peers at Kindergarten.
The latter also raises an example of a suspension of disbelief to allow a vital moment in the film to be played out; no present-day childcare facility would make it that easy for a small child to escape onto the street. No parent/guardian would allow someone like Bridget to continue caring for their child after so many mishaps, as Frances’ parents, same-sex couple Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu) do. Although supporting characters they are crucial to events, but there is something missing from Annie’s story arc that allows you to fully grasp what the couple’s dynamic, history and motivations are. Maya’s post-natal depression – another frequently unexplored screen subject like menstruating that the film boldly addresses – does go to mask this anomaly. The only significant moment for this character stems from an evening out with Bridget. Still, as a parent and one of film’s target demographic, these far-fetched set-ups do jar with the great work that O’Sullivan’s script and the acting does in making events as believable as possible.
That said Saint Frances is a highly commendable debut feature for Thompson and shows great writing prowess from O’Sullivan. It is also one of the most exciting indies on offer at present as it squares up to perceived ‘societal norms’, while tapping into human fragility and raw strength in equal sardonic measure.