Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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ALEX THOMPSON: SAINT FRANCES (2019)

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KELLY O'SULLILVAN AND ROMONA EDITH WILLIAMS IN SAINT FRANCES

Coming of age of whom?

Saint Frances brings together a 34-year-old woman called Bridget (Kelly O'Sullivan, also author of the screenplay) with a 6-year-old, Frannie, i.e., Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), when she becomes her nanny for the summer. Frannie is the mixed-race child of miXed-race lesbian parents: the older, Latina Maya (Charin Alvarez) and the African American Annie (Lily Mojekwu). Bridget and Frannie spar, then bond. Maya and Annie have issues, then resolve them. Bridget gets involved with several men, one of whom leads her to have an abortion. This does not hang together particularly well, but there are some good moments. One could easily have done without the pop-song scene transitions or the montage of Bridget and Frannie's various activities the film doesn't have time to stage as scenes. One could also do quite well without Bridget's brief involvement with an older man who teaches guitar to small groups, which as Hau Chu of the Washington Post wrote seems to be "shoehorned in" to teach a "lesson of some kind," but what lesson "isn't clear." Bridget's parents are depicted with a light authentic touch but their scene too seems incidental.

This movie is awfully strongly geared toward the woman's eye, which may explain why this guy balked at a lot of it. Judge these judgments, therefore, accordingly. The Metascore shows many critics have been enthusiastic about Saint Frances' boisterous charms. Look at the photo: can you resist it?

Saint Frances, to cite another prior critic, Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times, interweaves various elements, including abortion, same-sex parenting, and postpartum depression, into a film that's "bursting with positivity and acceptance." But all that ultimately matters is the bond, whose positivity winds up being a bit saccharine, between the feisty, preternaturally articulate little girl and the somewhat lost, no longer young woman. One can't believe Frannie's speech to Bridget near the end on all the way's she, Bridget, has shown herself to be brave. Even the wisest of Shakespearean children would not have the self-possession for such an oration. Kelly O'Sullivan overwrites at times and could have used with a decisive editor. She can also leave things out: hence the lesbian couple's failure to become three-dimensional till near the end, when it's a bit late. They are too generic.

O'Sullivan has something, though, and this intermittently amusing and appealing (and also arguably gag-inducing) movie could be a nice calling card for her multiple cinematic talents. As an actress she's cast herself to a T. She's interesting-looking, not quite pretty but almost. Her manner fits a character who is so honest she gets away with it. She has some memorable scenes with Jace (Max Lipchitz) - also an individual with specificity and character. Though he gets her pregnant, she insists to him they have no "relationship." These scenes have some of the fresh vernacular oddity of any given "High Maintenance" episode. Moments between the unintentional couple are icky, but make you want to go back and see more of them. (Lena Dunham's "Girls" might come to mind.)

Frannie is never a saint: the title isn't even funny. In the role, Ramona Edith Williams is utterly confident. Physically she is in all ways right. But Ramona's tiny little-girl voice compounds the blurriness of her diction. As a character, Frannie is a little too much of a little brat at first and too mature and sweet at the end. The writing needs more nuance. Ultimately it also might have seemed better if more stylized, framed more fully from the POV of Bridget, since her declaration at the end of how wonderful a time she's had makes this seem like her "How I Spent My Summer" - thus making her seem adolescent rather than merely unformed, while the child has jumped into sudden maturity. There's a lot of good stuff here, and room for lots of development by Kelly O'Sullivan, maybe with Alex Thomson as a team. The special jury and audience awards at SXSW and numerous other festival award nominations are an indication of the potential, and the charm of both the material and the main actors.

Saint Frances 104 mins., debuted at SXSW Mar. 2019, with 21 other festival showings including Chicago, Munich and Durban. US theatrical limited release was set for Mar. 15, but the pandemic has led to its coming VOD/digital platforms release by Oscilloscope May 5. Metascore 82%.

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