Saint Frances review: An honest look at women’s most intimate experiences

Kelly O’Sullivan writes and stars in a comedy that breaches the wall of silence around having a child – and choosing not to

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 16 July 2020 12:17
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Saint Frances trailer

Dir: Alex Thompson. Starring: Kelly O’Sullivan, Ramona Edith Williams, Charin Alvarez, Lily Mojekwu, Max Lipchitz. 15 cert, 100 mins.

In Saint Frances, a mother confesses to her adult daughter that she used to fantasise about smashing her baby’s head against the wall. On some days, parenthood felt simply like too much to handle. It may sound shocking, but as the mother, Carol (Mary Beth Fisher), argues: “It’s the truth and women should talk about it more often.” The old rules of respectability have let these kinds of fears and uncertainties fester in the shadows for far too long. Here’s a comedy, written by and starring Kelly O’Sullivan, that actively seeks them out – it’s an unvarnished perspective on both having a child and choosing not to.

At first, the daughter, named Bridget (O’Sullivan), reads like any other case study of “stunted adulthood”. She drifts from job to job, quietly jealous of her younger brother, who seemingly has it all: career, home, in-built sense of responsibility. She’s been newly hired as the nanny to a six-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), whose mothers Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu) are about to welcome a baby boy into their life. In truth, she only got the job because Frances took an instant disliking to the trained, experienced woman they’d initially hired.

Her employers bask in the rosy glow of middle-class liberalism. They have their beautiful home, out in the Chicago suburbs – a Black Lives Matter sign planted on the grass outside. Annie is a lawyer, while Maya’s job has given her ample maternity leave. Frances borders on precocious, her mind already filled with the fierce, feminist mantras of her mothers. “I have to find something most comfortable for my body, because every woman’s body is different,” she recites with confidence, when the matter of period products crops up.

But these women – Bridget, Maya, and Annie – have started to drift apart, each a prisoner to their own secrets. Annie’s workload has made her a rare presence in the house. She worries she’s failed as a parent. Maya is caught in a deep, postpartum depression (Alvarez quietly hollows herself out, offering the film’s best performance). Bridget has just had an abortion. Her current fling, 26-year-old Jace (Max Lipchitz), may be supportive, but she resents the fact that it’s her body alone that must suffer. All three women are muzzled by shame. The only true conflict here is their inability to talk to each other.

Every once in a while, that wall of silence is breached by the sight of a bloodstain, left behind on a bedsheet or chair – intermittent bleeding is an aftereffect of Bridget’s abortion. She’s always taken by surprise but, for the audience, it’s a reminder of how unnatural all this repression is. A person is not born with shame, but absorbs it. A portrait of the Virgin Mary, hung in Maya and Annie’s home, hints at the long history of sanctifying motherhood. There’s no room to diverge from the path.

O’Sullivan’s screenplay, much like her performance, is sweet without ever turning sickly. Alex Thompson’s direction, in turn, carefully matches her tone. Saint Frances may feature montages of Bridget and Frances playing in sun-dappled parks and dancing to Joan Jett, but there’s a vein of sorrow that runs through the film – we hear from a college classmate that everyone once thought Bridget was “the next Sylvia Plath”. Expectations can be stifling, but there’s still a hope that Frances, so bright and self-assured, won’t end up dulled by reality.

Saint Frances will be released in cinemas on 24 July

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