2020’s Indie darling Saint Frances is a film that only comes along once in a while. Prescient of the time its being made and what it wants to convey, Director Alex Thompson’s film, working off a script by Kelly O’Sullivan is utterly charming and quiet but the ways it talks about stigmas within society and the perceptions that affect women and how they themselves make assumptions about men is something of a masterstroke in storytelling. Telling the story of 34 year old Bridget (O’Sullivan) who feels rudderless in life and takes a job as a nanny for the summer to escape her minimum wage job as a server. Taking care of the precocious and old for her age Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), the six year old daughter of an affluent lesbian couple, Maya (Charin Alverez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu), Bridget is also contending with a new relationship with younger Jace (Max Lipchitz). When she discovers she is pregnant she is resolute in getting an abortion, not realising the paranoia and mental effects it will have on her. At first glance its a simple coming of age tale, intent on sidestepping the taboo of abortion to tell a well intentioned story about the realities of a young woman in today’s world. O’Sullivan’s script however speaks volumes about modern perceptions and though most unspoken they seep into every facet of Thompson’s picture.
While constantly focused on Bridget’s own mindset, how she sees others and most importantly herself, O’Sullivan’s script tackles the stigmas of modern society with grace as each character, except the prescient and unencumbered six year old that reminds Bridget and you of a time when things were black and white and not grey. These social issues, especially among women are rightly put to shame here but also shown to be terrifyingly powerful in how they are perceived. Even the discussion of abortion for Bridget comes with consequences as she informs Jace of her pregnancy, the pauses between dialogue alluding to all the incorrect perceptions of a procedure all too often vilified in the eyes of young women. Bridget’s expectation of what Jace will say is more mortifying than his actual words. Societies perception of her choice only gets more pronounced when you throw religion into the mix. Constantly making excuses for the reasons she keeps having fits of bleeding to her new employers, the deeply religious Annie and Maya, when she finally tells Annie the truth, the surprise of not being treated like a monster, being accepted outside of what she expected to happen highlights the very real fears that come from being a woman, the judgements men don’t have to deal with. The visible weight that is lifted when Bridget realises this judgement is something society has taught her to feel, it comes with a palpable joy of acceptance too often taken from female characters.
These societal expectations and perceptions flow throughout as Annie struggles with not only her race, being a black woman in America, where despite her career orientated life and her loving family she is still mistook for the nanny, perceived to be less that her hispanic partner, degraded to the position Bridget is shamed for having by her old college friend, a stereotypical idea of a modern trophy wife. Even new mother Maya takes on the stigmas of postpartum depression as she acclimates to new motherhood while dealing with the hormones that come from childbirth, something she didn’t have to contend with for their first child. Each of these women deal with self imposed shame for their choices, the way they live and how they fit into society but more so than with Annie and Bridget, Maya’s condition comes with perceptions that never do justice to the severity of her sadness. Old insulting questions and statements like ‘have you tried not being depressed?’ or ‘you can’t enjoy anything if you stay in bed all the time’ swirl through your mind of what Maya thinks people will say. The helplessness and shame of what she thinks people will think of her only deepen her depression.
Thompson and O’Sullivan speak to a modern America still struggling through the antiquated perceptions of the past but one that will ultimately surprise you, Saint Frances is mostly about self worth and how women manage to talk themselves out of having it because of other people’s idea of who they are. Be it a men, the society they belong to or other women, there are old perceptions that affect everything. Nothing however is more powerful that self perception, the way everyone scrutinises themselves unaware of its effects. Honing in on our own flaws, our age, weight, lifestyle or just our appearance, these kinds of nonsense routes to self worth are smartly deconstructed here. Bridget’s worst enemy is herself or at least how she wrongly sees herself to be. While Frances is almost immune to self perception, she doesn’t know quite who she is yet being the ripe old age of six, this is used to juxtapose Bridget’s own issues with self identity and who she really is. Frances is young but so, in the grand scheme of things, is the 34 year old Bridget but at that age you find a way to tell yourself otherwise and lose yourself in the process. This idea of failing at the idea of the perfect life, career and family freezes Bridget in place, directionless and lost.
This notion that we are all failing in whatever it is we are doing to achieve this idealised version of ‘normal’ is something Saint Frances is intent on combating. We shouldn’t be our own enemies but our advocates. When Annie judges herself for working too much or Maya hates she can’t escape her condition they too find themselves running afoul of their own misconceptions of what a family should be, who they should be. Despite being a comedy feature, the real story is the one built around the jokes. Even Bridget’s period is one that is dual coded to provide a certain amount of comedy while also showing how Bridget judges herself solely for the fact she is a woman. The modern world we live in is one of self imposed persecution.
The role of men in Saint Frances however has plenty to say on the topic of perception as well as O’Sullivan’s uses gender roles to not only provide comedy but combat preconceived notions of masculinity. While dating Jace, Bridget finds herself to draw to the older and presumably wiser Issac (Jim True-Frost), Frances’ middle aged music teacher. While both Jace and Issac are constantly seen as forgettable parts of Bridget’s story, they also represent the past and the future. Jace with his more feminine perspective on society and Issac insulated in his view that he is the most important person on this planet, a true narcissist if ever you saw one. The derivative way of putting it, in terms Frances would understand is Jace is the good guy, old for his years and keyed into a kinder, gentler world and Issac is the bad guy, the one stuck in the past, who still sees Bridget or any woman as a possession or thing. Both of their perceived roles are reversed. Issac isn’t wise, Jace isn’t the 26 year old man child Bridget makes him out to be. Personally I think it’s the difference between perception and imperception. Men in Saint Frances stand on the outside looking in like the audience, one who can choose to notice the way we perceive ourselves and those around us or ignore it, intent on looking inwards and backwards. Then again maybe its just a nice reminder not to judge a book by its cover, as someone can be young and knowing, old and reckless. In fact in Thompson’s film Jace’s roommate, the obviously titled Chad (Danny Catlow), is an angry buddhist, a contradiction in terms if ever I heard one.
Here the perceptions that guide these characters are almost always wrong, incomplete or damaging and to find comedy around that is a testament to the delicate and hilarious script Thompson’s film is based around. O’Sullivan’s script is about moving towards a better society and understanding of ourselves by tackling the outdated perceptions that we carry with us. Always teaching its audience by not advertently trying to, we are guided to a lesson not forced into sitting through one. Here the understanding of who others are and what we expected them to be is put to rest. In Saint Frances we see people for who they really are, much like Frances does. Here the smartest person in the room is the six year old because she doesn’t care who she thinks you are, just who you are and that is the beauty of Saint Frances.