Donald Trump will surely hate this fun time trailblazer, which has already taken conservative flak for being a “woke checklist for millennials,” what with its pro-choice stance, its insistence on women’s rights, and its celebration of liberal causes from mixed-race lesbian marriage and queer parenting to racial, financial and social inequality. Sorry, haters, the rest of us will find it impossible to resist. No matter that the trailer suggests a throwaway about a precocious kid who sets the adult world straight? Ha! Saint Frances is one of the best and gutsiest movies you’ll find anywhere these days and its specialty is exploding expectations. After winning the coveted Audience Award last year at SXSW, Saint Frances barely stuck its head into a few theaters in 2020 before COVID-19 stopped it in its tracks. Luckily, starting this week, the film is available on VOD, where you can see what all the fuss is about. Get busy.
Kelly O’Sullivan, who wrote the acutely funny script, brings the same vital charge to the role of Bridget, a 34-year-old Chicago diner waitress (she prefers “server”) looking to get a move on with her life. This Northwestern dropout feels judged — and she is. When she hooks up with fellow server Jace (promising newcomer Max Lipchitz),who’s eight years younger, he’s not repulsed when they wake up to red blotches on the sheets and both their faces from Bridget’s menstrual blood. The embarrassed Bridget is relieved when Jace makes a joke of it. The non-Hollywood scene isn’t gratuitous, it’s a tip that Saint Frances will treat its flawed characters (aren’t we all?) as real people with real bodies and real issues about them. The messy humanity on view makes the film exultingly relatable. Later, when lapsed Catholic Bridget gets pregnant and makes a practical decision about an abortion, the script points no fingers.
Directed by O’Sullivan’s partner, Alex Thompson, with careful attention to the dips and curves in the lives of modern women , Saint Frances strikes a path that’s quietly revolutionary for a so-called mainstream entertainment. Take Bridget’s decision to apply for a summer job as a nanny for six-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams), hardly the saint of the title but a pint-sized force of nature. Her lesbian parents, beautifully played by Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu), are the kind of proud progressives who hang signs at home saying, “Black Lives Matter” and “Hate Has No Home Here.” Frances is growing up fast, and it’s not lost on this child that her two mommies are having problems: Maya resenting the work-related absences of lawyer and breadwinner Annie. Apparently, the charming Edith-Williams wasn’t around when kid actors were schooled in the questionable art of sitcom exaggeration. She’s refreshingly natural, just like the rest of the movie.
It doesn’t take long for Maya and Annie to discover that Bridget is unqualified for the role of nanny. Bridget is inexperienced with kids and, hell, she doesn’t even like them. After a disastrous interview, she’s sent packing. Only necessity brings her back when Maya — suffering from postpartum depression after the birth of Frances’ baby brother — cries out for help. Kudos to the splendid Alvarez for tackling the hormonal changes of her character —another thorny topic movies likes to ignore — with humor and piercing honesty.
The core of the movie is watching a bond grow between Bridget and the kid she calls Franny, still in pain from what she perceives as parental neglect. O’Sullivan and Edith-Williams thrust and parry with hilarious and heartfelt results that never descend into mushy sentiment. All credit to O’Sullivan, Thompson and a tone-perfect cast for creating a film that moves to the rhythms of life as its lived rather than fantasized. Saint Frances retains its rough edges to that last. And that’s some kind of miracle.