There are worse ideas for a film than “Let’s provide a vehicle for Melissa Leo’s default pained expression.” Leo, the Oscar-winning actor from The Fighter, Frozen River, and Treme is this generation’s Dianne Wiest, a nuanced performer whose perpetually sad eyes and careworn face suggest endless past traumas, along with a capacity for suffering not yet fulfilled. Francine, the first fiction film from husband-and-wife documentary team Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky (The Patron Saints), makes excellent use of her Wiest-like ability to generate sympathy with a look, even when her characters are making poor or dangerous decisions. That said, Francine is so minimalist that it has to rely almost entirely on Leo for solidity, and it would be a far stronger film if it supported and framed her more effectively.
Francine could easily pass for a belated sequel to Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy And Lucy; it centers on a similar impoverished, disconnected woman in trouble with the law, and prone to seek comfort in animals rather than people. As the film begins, Leo is leaving jail after an unknown sentence for a never-revealed crime. It’s unclear how she became so emotionally damaged, but her cringing approach to life suggests a history of abuse. She gets joy out of sunlight, wind, and swimming, but she approaches people awkwardly if at all, and pulls away from human connection without revealing why. She’s most at home with animals, but as she builds a menagerie of strays, her tiny small-town home disintegrates around her.
From the beginning, Leo’s tentative, defeated air suggests the film will be an exercise in waiting for the other shoe to drop. Because her goals are so minimal and her attempts to meet them are so timid, the story never suggests it will be about how she crawls up toward respectability, so much as how soon and how badly she falls. Cassidy and Shatzky follow her through barely connected snippets—a shot of her waiting tables gives way to humiliating, painful sex in a bathroom; a metal band performing in a vacant lot gives her a moment of thrashing freedom—but it’s all observational, with little dialogue and practically no connective tissue. Until one lyrical sequence near the end, the cuts tend to be artlessly abrupt and jarring, emphasizing disconnection, particularly as she moves from loud arcades and bars to quiet stable stalls and silent rooms.
The lack of continuity, development, or background puts a lot of pressure on Leo to make every moment significant, and to make her character appealing even when she’s navigating her wrecked house, flinging dog food everywhere as if feeding chickens in a yard. And to some degree, she pulls it off. Her situation attracts some degree of empathy, and her hesitant, vulnerable performance attracts another. But it’s hard to be absorbed into such a fragmented, impressionistic world, where the questions about what her actions mean, who she is, and who she’s becoming perpetually outweigh the information at hand. Leo alone is practically enough for a movie, but Francine is such a small, short, incomplete one that it’s easy to want more—or less of this, and more of her in a more fully realized role.