By Jeffrey Sanzel
Saint Frances begins with Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) listening passively to a man drone on about a dream he had and how life is about purpose. This indulgent harangue only ends when he discovers that she is not in her twenties but a 34-year-old server; upon hearing this, he unceremoniously moves on.
This sets the tone for a story of someone who exists but does not actually live in her own life but drifts from moment to moment. Bridget seems unphased and unaffected by his rudeness and remains impassive.
She is then engaged by a younger man, Jace (sweetly earnest Max Lipchitz). That night, they fall into bed. It is clear that Jace wants more than just the hook-ups that seem to populate Bridget’s life. But this is not Bridget. The self-described feminist-atheist doesn’t know who she is or, more importantly, what she feels.
In short, she is a mess.
Gradually, details of her life are teased out. As a server, she has no affinity for the job, shown as soul-crushing drudgery. She then interviews for a nannying position, clearly ambivalent about the actual work but just wanting to escape the restaurant. The situation is to take care of six year-old Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams). Frances’ mothers, pregnant Maya (Charin Alvarez, heartbreaking in her struggle, triumphant in her resolution) and lawyer Annie (layered and dimensional Lily Mojekwu) are dubious and pass on her.
In the meantime, Bridget discovers she is pregnant and Jace willingly offers to support her in any way. Almost immediately, Bridget decides to terminate the pregnancy. It is not so much a cavalier choice as it is, like all of her actions, done almost at a distance. Bridget is someone who lives apart from herself.
Two months later, after the original nanny is let go, Bridget is offered the position. She readily accepts even though she seems to have no affinity for children. Maya is now struggling with postpartum depression, and Annie is now back at work full-time and seemingly unavailable.
Initially, Bridget is emotionally absent as a caretaker. She makes a series both benign and what could be (but do not result in) calamitous mistakes. However, she gradually awakens to her responsibility, and not just to Frances, but to herself. Her journey is both darkly funny and achingly melancholy. Much of the film is excruciating as she perpetually teeters on and often goes over the edge of poor judgment. But, through her commitment to her charge, she grows.
In the tumult of the chaos that is Bridget, there are many astute and charming scenes. A hike with her parents who are humorous but caring eschews the usual clichés. Following the baptism of Maya and Annie’s baby, Frances gives confession to Bridget. A sleepover shows that there is joy in the simplest moments.
At the center of the film is Kelly O’Sullivan’s riveting and nuanced performance, letting the light ever so gradually shine into Bridget’s life, building up to several wonderfully cathartic moments. She is matched by Ramona Edith Williams, an honest and endearing child actor. Whether dismissing Bridget with a “We’re done” or subtlety crumbling under the fear of being replaced by her new sibling, she is unmannered and, most importantly, real. Together, they make the film beat as one.
Director Alex Thompson allows Kelly O’Sullivan’s insightful screenplay to breathe, never giving away what will happen next, but drawing us further and deeper into Bridget’s tumultuous wake. It is all beautifully filmed by cinematographer Nate Hurtsellers. Together, they have created a film that dissects and yet celebrates the fact that family given or chosen are equal parts love and dysfunction.
Ultimately, Saint Frances’ heart lies in purpose. Prior to Frances, Bridget is wandering ambivalently through her own story. Even her mother asks her if is she was happy she was born, even with her life “the way it is.” But with responsibility, Bridget becomes awakened, aware, and empowered. By actively involving herself in this family — by finding her purpose — she not only finds herself but her sense of value. Saint Frances leaves Bridget — and us — in a better place.
Not rated, Saint Frances is now streaming on-demand.