SAINT FRANCES – Review by Carol Cling

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Growing up is hard to do. Especially when you’re 34 years old and everybody — including you — thinks you should have done it long ago.

That’s the central premise of the quietly droll, slyly observant Saint Frances, which captured two prizes at last year’s SXSW Film Festival: an Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature and a Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Voice.

Make that two voices: director Alex Thompson and screenwriter/star Kelly O’Sullivan, who create a compelling character study that explores somewhat familiar territory in frequently beguiling style.

Saint Frances’ title character (played by the irrepressible, irresistible Ramona Edith-Williams) may be a precocious 6-year-old. But the movie’s protagonist is 34-year-old Bridget (O’Sullivan), an endearingly underachieving college dropout working as a restaurant server.

She’s all too aware of her lack of focus and direction. Which explains why a job looking after Frances — the daughter of a mixed-race lesbian couple (Charin Alvarez, Lily Mojekwu) living in an affluent Chicago suburb — seems like a step up.

At least when the often impudent Frances isn’t testing Bridget’s patience — or challenging her authority. (Out of the mouths of babes … )

The post also gives Bridget the chance to ponder other aspects of her life, from her not-quite-a-relationship with a younger nice guy (Max Lipchitz) to her ambivalent attitude about having children of her own.

Bridget’s not the only one doing some heavy-duty introspective lifting, however. Both of Frances’ parents wrestle with this perpetually anxious inquiry: Am I failing the people I love?

Serious themes, to be sure, but Saint Frances maintains a welcome light touch throughout.

O’Sullivan’s script gives the often hapless Bridget a host of sitcom-worthy moments. And some peripheral characters (Rebecca Spence as an intolerant neighbor, Rebekah Ward as an arrogant ex-classmate of Bridget’s) tiptoe along the razor-thin line separating character from caricature.

But whenever Saint Frances threatens to overplay its comic hand, the movie pulls back, preserving its more thoughtful undercurrents.

Director Thompson displays a sharp visual flair, whether highlighting revealing background detail (a “Black Lives Matter” sign in Frances’ front yard vs. an “Unborn Lives Matter” magnet on a neighbor’s refrigerator) or contrasting the movie’s dappled-green setting with the characters’ less summery emotions.

Throughout, however, Saint Frances keeps the focus where it belongs: on the characters’ appealingly messy lives. And the performers who bring those lives to life.

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Carol Cling

Carol Cling served as the Las Vegas Review-Journal's film critic for more than 30 years, reviewing movies and covering movie and TV production in Las Vegas, from Casino to CSI. An honors graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, she also has studied film at the American Film Institute and the BBC