The malaise of a person’s early 30s is a well-trodden indie movie premise by now, so it’s a rare delight when a new entry into this subgenre offers something genuinely fresh. Saint Frances achieves exactly this, a low-budget debut that reaches its lofty ambitions without ever over-extending itself. It’s an insightful portrait of the female experience and psyche at a variety of ages and stations in life, both universal and intimate. Balancing static melancholy with high-strung energy and plenty of laughs, it’s a superb calling card for all involved, especially writer and star Kelly O’Sullivan.
O’Sullivan plays Bridget, a 34 year old stuck in a career rut as a restaurant server. She has a younger, very attentive, boyfriend, but otherwise feels listless, and so jumps at the chance to change jobs, taking on a summer gig as a nanny for precocious pre-schooler Frances (Ramona Edith Williams). For the most part, O’Sullivan carefully avoids cliché; there is a run across town set to a song with clapping in it, but Bridget is changed by Frances not through some rote, kiddy life lessons, but simply through having to grow up slightly as a surrogate parent. As Frances grows to trust Bridget more, so Bridget becomes more confident in herself and her choices.
Saint Frances is frank and unapologetic about the daily realities of women’s life that most films screw their noses up at and ignore. Periods are a frequent annoyance, and an early-stage abortion that Bridget goes through is understated, informing but never defining her choices later in the film. Elsewhere, Bridget’s mum openly discusses post-partum depression, while Frances’s high-flying mothers have to contend with cracks in their marriage that Bridget’s presence, paradoxically, both fixes and deepens.
Any one of the issues tackled here would be a worthy of a stand-up-and-shout Serious Drama, but O’Sullivan and director Alex Thompson gently fold them in to the narrative as facts of life, as frustrating and irritating as they may be, tempered by love and laughs. Saint Frances is very funny, most of its characters introduced with the sort of joke that instantly endears them to you (or, occasionally, makes you instantly hate them). A lot of the funniest gags are incidental details, like the hilarious way Bridget’s aging dad applies sunscreen to his legs or the overly short shorts of her boyfriend’s roommate. It’s this sort of attention to detail, both comic and dramatic, that raises Saint Frances above most of its indie debut peers.
O’Sullivan also makes the interesting choice to have the film’s darkest, angriest scenes revolve around Bridget’s mistreatment by other women, classism and internalised misogyny upending any sort of female solidarity and making the cruelty sting all the more. That’s not to say there aren’t any shitty men, but they’re mostly used as comic relief, idiotic annoyances who fade away with a whimper. It makes for a more surprising, unpredictable movie, and denies the toxic men the attention they always crave.
Fantastically written and charmingly performed by a cast you mostly won’t recognise, Saint Frances really nails the feeling of witnessing a series of real lives in all their mess and pleasure. There are so many ways that this story could have ended up flat and generic, but O’Sullivan expertly hops over these pitfalls, refusing to bow to convention and making something joyful as a result.