A sensitive, nuanced Chicago dramedy that dives into the emotional complexities of abortion.
There are few movies for which menstruation is a major thematic underpinning; there are even fewer movies that feature menstruation in the first 10 minutes. Saint Frances’ divine inspiration is in the way it centers women’s bodies and experiences with tenderness and a sense of celebration.
This is still a devoutly secular movie, but it has moments of religiosity that ring true for a generation currently adrift amongst confusing ideas of faith and spirituality. Providing a spectrum of religious positions — believer, skeptic, agnostic, novitiate, etc. the film ultimately finds faith and belief in oneself and others to be the most rewarding.
Saint Frances follows Bridget (screenwriter Kelly O’Sullivan), a 34-year-old lost poet in Chicago, who’s living her own nightmare — a life wasted with nothing to show for it. To escape her serving job, she takes a position as a nanny to precocious six-year-old named Frances (Ramona Edith Williams). Initially, there’s some apprehension between the two, each suspicious of the other. But through a series of lessons, the two form a bond of mutual trust and learning that changes everyone involved, including Frances’ two moms, Maya and Annie (Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu).
While balancing this new role, Bridget meets Jace (Max Lipchitz). The two take up relations, but Bridget soon becomes pregnant. Bridget knows she’s not ready for a baby, and her subsequent decision turns Saint Frances into a film about healing, even from difficult decisions that are otherwise understandable.
The healing isn’t just limited to Bridget, either; what’s remarkable about Saint Frances is that it extends its explicitly feminist focus to the community of women around her. Maya and Annie’s marriage is stretched to the breaking point by work, as well as raising Frances and her newborn sibling. Maya is still literally healing from a difficult so-called “geriatric” birth and dealing with postpartum depression. As this queer family and Bridget begin to heal, we see that kinship can sometimes be stronger than blood.
Blood is a recurring theme and character in Saint Frances. It marks out time, signifies change, potential, the future. It causes Bridget to wrestle with vulnerability and practice intimacy as menstrual blood unexpectedly reveals itself on a chair, in clothes, in bed, on someone’s face. It reminds Bridget of her age. But it also connects her to her mother and the new mothers in her life.
For as focused as Saint Frances is on menstruation, fertility and the importance of female agency, the way the men are used in this film is often confusing. Jace is a charming and delightful companion who expresses and tends to Bridget’s feelings. He’s calm and cheeky when they wake up covered in period blood. He offers, without prompting, to Venmo Bridget for half the cost of the abortion. He seems to be everything we’d like in non-toxic modern masculinity. Yet, Bridget’s own self-absorption and insecurity makes her casts him aside because he, at 24, is “too young” — it’s the classic ‘pushing good people away out of self-hatred’ rap that feels a little contrived.
As this queer family and Bridget begin to heal, we see that kinship can sometimes be stronger than blood.
This leads Bridget to fall into an extraneous subplot with Frances’ smarmy guitar teacher Dennis (Francis Guinan), an older man with some outdated ideas about gender roles. This accomplishes very little; it doesn’t make Bridget realize anything about the importance of a women-centered community, and thus feels a bit vestigial. After all, the complications surrounding her relationship with Jace is enough to add weight to Bridget’s circumstances. Lipchitz is incredibly charming, and his chemistry with O’Sullivan is a delight. Not having them together feels tragic enough on its own.
Thompson and O’Sullivan (whom The Spool interviewed for last year’s Chicago Critics Film Festival) approach the material with a frankness and honesty that’s refreshing. He presents Bridget’s abortion in a straight-forward manner that respects the gravity of the situation; it’s a big deal, but it’s also deceptively mundane. Thompson’s intimate staging puts you amongst the group of women, laying bare the blood, the pain in their eyes, and their joy. In this respect, Saint Frances remains an unflinching look at the everyday struggles of women in modernity. O’Sullivan, who wrote the script, shows Bridget’s conflict between what she wants and what society expects of her, her own slackerdom colliding against the gargantuan expectations levied against women’s bodies.
As Maya, Alvarez has perhaps the hardest role in the film, already worn down, depressed, and meek, but finding grace in Maya’s post-partum malaise. Same goes for Mojekwu’s character, largely shut out by Maya’s depression, but who carries herself with a buttoned-down self-seriousness which breaks down in a beautifully vulnerable moment with Bridget late in the film.
Amid the sly indie dramedy of Saint Frances, Thompson and O’Sullivan manage to flatten the distinctions between sacred and profane, where blood is human yet bonds a community. It is a heartwarming story that reorients our notions of belief and how we heal in the 21st century. Institutions and the patriarchy are no longer necessary for women’s validation, but that doesn’t mean faith is not important. Finding faith in each other makes for a stronger, more holistic healing. Blood marks out time: it is something we share, and it can be what brings us closer together.
Saint Frances opens in New York this Friday, February 28th and rolls out wider in future weeks.