Saint Frances review – wry, tender, taboo-busting drama

Mark Kermode
·3-min read

Reviewing Eliza Hittman’s powerfully understated drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always in this paper recently, I noted that by approaching the urgent subject of reproductive rights through the prism of a coming-of-age story with road-movie inflections, Hittman’s film avoided ever seeming polemical.

The same is true of this terrific (and very different) feature from writer and star Kelly O’Sullivan, a vibrant and emotionally engaging tale that dresses its subversive self-determination manifesto in the clothes of a ditzy, bittersweet comedy about midlife disappointment.

Laughing and crying my way through Saint Frances (the deserving winner of several major festival audience awards), I was reminded of the outraged reactions that greeted Gillian Robespierre’s 2014 comedy Obvious Child, with one conservative critic carping: “If America laughs at this, America is beyond redemption.” Yet by refusing to accept the taboo status afforded to such everyday subjects as menstruation, birth control, abortion and postnatal depression, O’Sullivan brilliantly injects a radical element into this wryly tender portrait of an anxious single woman pinballing between jobs, relationships and uncertain life goals.

We first meet O’Sullivan’s Bridget at a party, listening in bemused horror to a middle-aged man’s indulgent nightmares of failure, cut short by her own deadpan declaration that she’s a 34-year-old waitress – or, as she puts it, “a server”. After hooking up with the younger Jace (Max Lipchitz), Bridget finds herself facing an unwanted pregnancy at around the same time that fate conspires to offer her new employment, nannying for six-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith Williams, channelling the unmannered precocious energy of The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Kimberly Prince).

Overwhelmed by the arrival of their new baby, well-to-do lesbian couple Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu) rope Bridget in for summer-season childcare, despite the fact that she’s clearly unprepared for parenting – surrogate or otherwise. Will her avowed child-phobia (“You must really like kids”; “I don’t”) prevent her from doing the job? And what will her employers, one of whom is devoutly religious, think of her own decision to have a termination?

Directed with loose-limbed intimacy by O’Sullivan’s real-life partner Alex Thompson, Saint Frances (the title implies healing, but also nods towards a wonderfully playful confession scene) benefits from Nate Hurtsellers’s hand-held cinematography, capturing these characters with empathetic candour. Whether it’s the discovery of menstrual blood on bedsheets after a night of energetic love-making with Jace, or a long-lens exchange between Bridget and Frances on a suburban street, we get the sense of eavesdropping on genuine encounters, in all their raggedy richness.

Related: How a new wave of taboo-busting comedies are tackling abortion

At times we’re left laughing heartily at life’s absurdities – a scene in which Bridget mock-scolds Frances by bumping her push-buggy, only for the child to cry out in delight (“Again!”), is a smile-raising treat. Elsewhere, there’s a beautifully sardonic edge to the comedy, typified by Jim True-Frost’s excruciating guitar-teacher-guru Isaac, who thinks his musical compositions are divinely inspired, and who views contraception as women’s work.

What’s most impressive, however, is the degree to which the incidental details of this frank and feisty film ring true. Like Michaela Coel’s outstanding BBC TV series I May Destroy You, Saint Frances expands the representation of women’s lives on screen in a way that is so casual you hardly notice it’s happening. Indeed, when Bridget finally gets to say exactly what she thinks about the events that define this drama, her words (which amount to a mission statement) are framed within a throwaway comedic device that undercuts her honesty with a hilariously dry punchline. It’s just one instance of the delicate balancing act that this gently marvellous movie gets just right.

  • Saint Frances opens in cinemas later this month (postponed at late notice from 17 July)