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.