Tallgrass Film Festival Review: Saint Frances

Once in a while, we get a charming bit of sweetness that takes some controversial subject matter and turns it into something interesting. Last year’s Tallgrass Film Festival had H.P. Mendoza’s Bitter Melon, this year we’re gifted with Alex Thompson’s Saint Frances, written by lead actress Kelly O’Sullivan. There’s a lot of movement throughout this film but all of it pushes towards the theme of acceptance and love in the face of everything else. The difficult plot threads range far and wide but there’s an emotional core to this whole affair that makes everything tie together. This isn’t brilliance, but it’s beauty.

dk66szfzrcmwlo9u4gq0Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) is a down-on-her-luck woman in her early 30’s that just doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life. The world isn’t what she thought it would be, she doesn’t have a life or kids going on, and there isn’t much hope for her future. She meets and hooks up with a nice guy, Jace (Max Lipchitz), at a party and winds up pregnant. All this is going down while she’s interviewing and starting a job working for Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu) as a nanny to their daughter Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams) while Annie works her ass off and Maya stays home with the new baby. Bridget aborts her own pregnancy and what follows is an exploration in lifestyle shaming, guilt, sadness, and love. 

Let’s get this out there right off the bat: everyone does a great job in their roles but Kelly O’Sullivan and Ramona Edith-Williams are on a whole other level. Simple things are much more impactful coming from the kid, who is absolutely sweet and charming in what a precocious smart-ass she is. Frances serves as a multitude of representations, from the fulfillment of potential to a sister-figure and even daughter-figure for Bridget. It’s a lot to place on the shoulders of such a young actress and she doesn’t bat an eye at the material. There’s an openness to her that is built into the script, weaving in liberal sensibilities and Catholic imagery to create an environment that transcends both.

And how about that Catholic imagery? It’s woven into not only the film but the narrative itself. Annie is one half of a couple, an agnostic that has found even grounding with her wife Maya. One half of this couple is a dedicated religious figure that is struggling with postpartum depression and cannot understand where her god has gone and feeling lonely with just an infant and an absentee wife. Bridget begins to serve as a bridge between these two, the conduit between the holy and nonreligious, and creates a lifeline of understanding. The baby is a catalyst for stress and change, but this small family serves as God the father (Annie, the provider), God the son (Maya, the preacher that desperately wants others to hear her truth), and the Holy Spirit (Frances, the whimsical sweet thing that influences positivity in everyone’s lives). 

We have a lot of millennial hallmarks in here as well, from using Venmo to reimburse someone for an abortion to the use of cell phones to forge connections. So much of this is set out there and it’s charming, relevant, and wholly unnecessary. I enjoyed these small instances for what they were but ultimately I don’t know that they worked.

That doesn’t mean all of the millennial talking points were mistakes. Bridget feels almost insulted to be contained in that generation, particularly when her paramour Jace pulls out an emotions journal where he wrote down talking points to discuss the abortion with her. A lot of the segments with Jace actually seem to elevate Bridget’s character as she struggles with being attracted to a man 8 years her junior, one so wrapped up in his own feelings and wants that he hasn’t actually made an effort to understand her point of view despite wanting to. A lot is made of this relationship and it is ultimately unresolved but I think that adds to the realism. Sometimes relationships just…fizzle. They do so with no explanation or rationale, they just end. 

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Behind the scenes with Ramona Edith-Williams

The film itself ends on so many powerful notes, leaving me a shaky and emotional mess throughout the last half hour or so. Pride, honesty, and loving little family moments become something I can’t talk about without spoilers but trust me, this thing is a wild ride for the finale. O’Sullivan is such a treasure in these final bits and no wonder, she wrote her own character and dialogue. It works and serves to be one of the best films I’ve seen in 2019. Few others have been as honest, brave, loving, or blunt. It’s a movie about blood and bonds, about pride and shame, and about what family can truly be. I don’t know where you’ll wind up seeing this, but it’s worth every minute of your time when it comes available (don’t worry, WDED will let you know). 

Wichita locals listen up! There’s one last screening today, 10/18, 3:15pm at the Orpheum Theatre. Just throwing it out there. You can purchase tickets here

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