The possibility that our futures hold nothing remarkable for us can seem like a nightmare. In Saint Frances, 34-year-old deadbeat Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) is well aware she’s not exactly where she should be in life, and anxiety over the fact cripples her self-esteem. Old friends are getting married, buying houses, and having babies—experiences that for her seem hopelessly out of reach. An old acquaintance marvels at Bridget’s ill fortune, claiming all her college peers supposed she would grow up to be “the next Sylvia Plath.” Yet Bridget’s writing days are very far behind her. O’Sullivan, who also wrote the screenplay, and first-time director Alex Thompson aren’t interested in redeeming Bridget by tracing her triumphant return to the craft, by having her find love, or by breaking into a more impressive career. And Saint Frances, with its ample vulnerability and warm humor, is all the better for it.
We meet Bridget as things are looking up, despite her ever-present feelings of inadequacy. A new romance with Jace (Max Lipchitz), a quintessential nice guy several years her junior, has brought loving support into her life— even if she denies his efforts to make their relationship official. But the plot mostly hinges on the summer job Bridget lands as a nanny for a wealthy couple. Relative to her crummy waitressing gig, nannying is cushy and lucrative. But her ward, 6-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), proves unexpectedly difficult. Bridget’s new employers, Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu), are as progressive as they come in the affluent suburbs of Chicago. A Black Lives Matter sign figures prominently in their front yard, and the two women appear to have already instilled in their small but clever daughter ideas about race (Maya is Latina, Annie is Black) and feminine anatomy beyond her years.
Frances takes it upon herself to be as pesky as possible to her new, inexperienced nanny—opening up and destroying her tampons, crying out that she’s being abducted at the park. But Bridget, initially unreliable, succeeds in winning over Frances, perhaps because the she offers a certain vitality and a gleeful, punkish attitude otherwise absent from the kid’s home life. Child actors, who often rely on instincts more than training, can make or break the illusion of a film. Thankfully, Williams isn’t overly self-aware of her own adorableness, which grounds Saint Frances in a sweet naturalism that makes it easy to overlook O’Sullivan’s somewhat lackluster performance.
So, too, does Alvarez, whose Maya—stuck at home tending to her newborn son while her attorney spouse works long hours—begins to experience severe postpartum depression. It’s the film’s most affecting performance; so deeply does Alvarez convey Maya’s melancholy that when the character steps outside for a rare group outing with Bridget and the kids, merely the light on her face seems to imply a remarkable, resuscitative effect.
As screenwriter, O’Sullivan hones in on the rich, beautifully messy, and occasionally painful experiences of the female body. Always forgetful about when her period will occur, Bridget’s sexual encounters repeatedly result in blood-stained sheets. There’s also an ugly Fourth Of July encounter where a catty neighbor scolds Maya for breastfeeding in public. Bridget eventually realizes she’s pregnant; avoiding expressing her feelings to the plaintive Jace, she opts for an abortion without much deliberation. The morality (or lack thereof) of this decision doesn’t weigh on her. She’s more troubled by the way pregnancy underscores how out-of-sync she is with other women her age, who have careers and could responsibly accommodate a child.
Despite its title, Saint Frances isn’t too concerned with matters of God and religion, seeking instead to develop an understanding of grace, love, and empathy on their own terms. At the crux of its philosophy is O’Sullivan’s treatment of the female body, as something too often marginalized or rendered taboo. (Men’s attitudes towards sex during menstruation is a marker here.) Perhaps this is why young, rambunctious Frances is so important. She jumps into ponds, tears through stacks of library books, screams when she wants things her way. What’s more difficult to control than a child’s body? At the same time, what body deserves more compassion and protection?
Stray elements, like Bridget’s pursuit of a sleazy guitar instructor or a nature walk consultation with her wise parents, feel obligatory, betraying the film’s somewhat formulaic nature. Particularly in the film’s conclusion, there are moments between Bridget and Frances that veer too close to the artificially precious, undermining the power of the bond between nanny and discerning child that hadn’t yet been fully articulated. Yet Saint Frances goes down easy. It’s refreshingly small and intimate, and is specific on the lives of very particular women without overreaching to look more politically salient or strike zeitgeist concerns. Bridget’s personal growth is understated, and so, for the most part, are the pleasures of Saint Frances.