“Saint Frances is sometimes a challenging watch, but it is also a thoroughly rewarding and an ultimately uplifting one”
For the most part, it is pretty obvious that 2020 has not been a good year for the film industry. From the pandemic-induced chaos inflicted upon studio’s long-planned release calendars to the dire financial straits that production companies and venues alike have found themselves in, it seems that there has so far been very little to celebrate. Or has there?
Beneath the swirling mass of increasingly bleak headlines, over recent months there has been an encouraging increase in the level of attention given to media centered around ‘taboo’ subjects related to the female experience, particularly in respect to sex and relationships. Most notably thanks to the successes of Kitty Green’s #MeToo-inspired The Assistant, Eliza Hittman’s Silver Bear-winning abortion-based drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Michaela Coel’s critically-acclaimed TV series I May Destroy You. Although there is clearly still a way to go in this respect, it is nevertheless an important breakthrough and has already begun to have an impact – notably creating the perfect conditions for the release of Alex Thompson’s similarly themed, albeit much lighter in tone, Saint Frances.
Before considering the film’s quality (spoiler: it’s excellent), it must first be said that trying to describe the plot of Saint Frances is ultimately a reductive endeavour. Sure, there is an official synopsis which covers the most important plot beats – following an unplanned pregnancy and an abortion, an aimless thirty-something Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) strikes up an unlikely friendship with Frances, the 6-year-old (Ramona Edith Williams) she’s supposed to be nannying. But, describing the film purely in terms of its plot acts only to massively undersell the wide-ranging reflection on the post-feminism female experience at the heart of the film’s narrative.
During its 106-minute run-time, the film covers the entire gamut of primarily female-centric ‘taboo’ subjects ranging from period sex and post-partum depression to childlessness and casual sex and it does so without ever feeling like some kind of faux-inspiring public information film. Even such a heavy subject matter as abortion is deftly handled with a level of wry wit balanced alongside the requestite sensitivity. In particular, it is extremely refreshing to see a representation of the choice to undergo the procedure being a definitive decision early on rather than becoming a macabre ‘will-they-won’t-they’-style plot device.
The refreshing quality to the film is also found in its particularly well-rounded characters, specifically, Annie (Lily Mojekwu) and Maya (Charin Alvarez), Frances’ lesbian parents. Whilst it would be easy for some to decry them as part of some kind of subterfuge to further inflate the film’s progressive message, they are by no means tokenistic and together with Bridget they contribute three totally different perspectives on motherhood and the expectations placed on women in the 21st century.
Saint Frances greatest achievement lies in the way it uses character development as the primary narrative driver and avoids falling into the all too common trap of using a character’s trauma as purely a means to define and shape them. This is most obvious with Bridget. Whilst she is clearly affected by the abortion, her thoughts and feelings about it are layered within her overall personality and there are plenty of stretches of the film where the subject of abortion is not primarily responsible for moving the narrative forwards.
Instead, this falls to the well-crafted relationships between the characters. Clearly, the emotional core of the film centres around the relationship between Bridget and Frances and admittedly it is utterly charming in every possible way and the chemistry between them is truly something special, especially considering the latter’s young age. However, there is also something to be said for the relationship between Bridget and Jase (Max Lipchitz), the equally aimless father of her unborn child, which becomes one of the film’s strongest aspects towards the end of the film.
In particular, Bridget’s refusal to engage with him to talk about the emotional toll that the experience is especially compelling and provides the means to reveal Bridget’s inner conflict over whether or not to consider the abortion as a loss. This provides the perfect set up for the film’s third act and lays the groundwork for its powerful concluding scenes during which Bridget is forced to reconcile her beliefs about feminism and what she believes a modern woman should be with the situation she has found herself in.
Despite its witty writing and charming characters, due to its subject matter, it is true that Saint Frances is sometimes a challenging watch, but it is also a thoroughly rewarding and ultimately uplifting one. It reminds us that the unpredictable events we are charged with dealing with throughout our lives are made no easier by their associated societal stigmas and highlights the importance of challenging these, both outwardly towards others and inwardly towards ourselves.
Director: Alex Thompson
Screenwriter: Kelly O’Sullivan
Producers: James Choi, Edwin Linker, Ian Keiser, Alex Thompson, Pierce Cravens, Raphael Nash, Roger Welp
Cast: Kelly O’Sullivan, Ramona Edith Williams, Charin Alvarez
Release Date: In UK cinemas from late July (Postponed from 17th July)
Featured image courtesy of Oscilloscope