We’ve been seeing a lot of this in cinema lately: A young or at least youngish woman, a millennial or cusping thereabouts, intelligent but adrift, overeducated but underemployed, a rebel with a cause but also deeply concerned with how she fits in the world, comes to a reckoning that is no less turbulent and life-altering for being unspectacular, at least to all outward appearances.
The key signature of these movies is minor and comic, with a worn edge of weary feminism, as though years of rage and warfare have led not to surrender but to a kind of wisdom often mistaken for cynicism. As Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) blurts out near the end of Saint Frances, the hedged but impactful debut by director Alex Thompson: “Why am I crying? I’m an agnostic feminist!”
It’s one of the best moments in a film full of wry left jabs at the crisis of modern womanhood, not just as it’s experienced but as it’s expressed in endless movies that flag themselves, sometimes a bit too overtly, as curatives to that crisis.
Played expertly by O’Sullivan, Bridget is a 34-year-old college dropout who, at romantic and financial loose ends, applies for a summer job nannying the 6-year-old daughter (the fantastic Ramona Edith Williams as Frances) of an upper-middle-class lesbian couple (Lily Mojekwu and Charin Alvarez) with a newborn son.
A smart comedy with a dark, but not too dark, streak, Saint Frances never resorts to being an issue movie, though it’s loaded with issues, including Bridget’s abortion, which provides a narrative undercurrent that never bursts into an oversized political flare.
In fact, the balance brought to bear on what we call “women’s issues” is the chief pleasure of the film. O’Sullivan wrote the screenplay, and she brings a balance of tenderness and frankness to her character’s concerns — including menstrual blood, which courses and spots and stains throughout the film like its own subplot — that is quietly revolutionary and often hilarious.
The ironic force of the movie, and what sparks much of its comedy, is that Bridget is anything but a saint. As befits her character, she’s a big-hearted fuck-up slouching toward redemption, and despite her verbal diarrhea and romantic blundering, she’s sharp enough to learn from her mistakes. That’s good enough, and director Thompson keeps his gaze gentle, finding subtle rhythms in the narrative that give us the feeling of eavesdropping intimately on Frances’ life, rather than being exposed to it.
Would that there were more movies like this, ones that treat their female leads as flawed, complex, three-dimensional people subjected not just to being “women” but to being fully realized human beings. In this regard, Saint Frances quietly extends its reach into the great hidden and largely unspoken subject of class in American life and how it operates not just on women but between them as well.
Sly, funny and authentically heartwarming, Saint Frances is at once a diversion from our troubled times and a look right into its deepest realities. In its lead character, we find the lost-generation portrait of a 30-something that is at once familiar in its trappings and new in its emotional resonance. It’s only when you stop laughing that you realize how quietly, disarmingly brave it all is.
Saint Frances, along with a host of other titles, is being offered through Broadway Metro’s Virtual Cinema program, which allows you to watch new releases at home. You can also order popcorn and growlers for delivery. For more information, visit BroadwayMetro.com.