Review: ‘Saint Frances,’ starring Kelly O’Sullivan and Ramona Edith Williams

February 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kelly O’Sullivan and Ramona Edith Williams in “Saint Frances” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Saint Frances” 

Directed by Alex Thompson

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago, the comedy/drama “Saint Frances” has a cast of predominantly white (with some African American and Latino) characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 34-year-old single woman who says she doesn’t really like kids ends up being a nanny to a precocious and often-bratty 6-year-old girl.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to independent movie fans with open-minded viewpoints on parenting issues, since abortion and lesbian mothers are major parts of the story.

Ramona Edith Williams and Kelly O’Sullivan in “Saint Frances” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The dramedy film “Saint Frances” avoids a lot of maudlin clichés that are found in stories about nannies and instead tells a very funny and sometimes emotionally raw story about how a nanny and a child she cares for make an impact on each other’s lives. The nanny is 34-year-old Bridget (played by Kelly O’Sullivan, who wrote the “Saint Frances” screenplay), an underachiever in Chicago who’s kind of drifting through life with no specific plans.

She’s quit her job as a restaurant server to become a temporary nanny to a precocious 6-year-old named Frances, nicknamed Franny (played by a very adorable Ramona Edith Williams), in the summer before Franny begins kindergarten. Franny’s parents are a lesbian couple in their 40s—no-nonsense attorney Annie (Lily Mojekwu) and sensitive homemaker Maya (played by Charin Alvarez), who’s recently given birth to their second child, a son named Wally.

Bridget is the kind of person who privately says she doesn’t really like kids and isn’t sure if or when she wants to be a mother. She also hates her job as a server, so that’s why she jumps at the chance to try something new by being a nanny. At first, she and Franny don’t really get along too well, since Franny can be hyperactive and bratty, while Bridget can be impatient and unprepared.

And Bridget wasn’t exactly the first choice to be the nanny. During her interview with Annie and Maya, when she was asked if she has any siblings, Bridget replied that she has a younger brother, but they don’t have much in common with each other because, “He’s married, has a house, and is very responsible.” But the nanny who was originally hired was let go due to incompatibility, so Annie and Maya hired Bridget out of desperation, since she was available to start the job immediately.

Meanwhile, shortly before she started her nanny job, Bridget began dating a 26-year-old server named Jace (played by Max Lipchitz), whom she met at a house party and hooked up with that same night. Bridget wants to keep things casual between them and even tells Jace that even though they have sex with each other, they’re not in a relationship. The morning after their first sexual encounter was awkward and comical, because they both found out that Bridget had started her menstruation period during the encounter, and the full effects could be seen in the light of day. Bridget and Jace were both able to laugh about it though.

Bridget’s menstruation and other biological feminine bleeding are mentioned and seen several times in this film. All of that blood is usually played for laughs in the movie, but according to “Saint Frances” screenwriter O’Sullivan, the reason why Bridget’s blood gets so much attention in the story is to realisitically show women’s gynecological functions that usually aren’t seen or discussed in movies.

In an open letter, O’Sullivan explained why she chose to have her Bridget character bleed so much in the film: “‘Saint Frances’ endeavors to normalize and destigmatize those parts of womanhood that we’re encouraged not to talk about. I wanted not only to talk about these subjects, but to show them onscreen unapologetically, realistically. This movie could be called ‘There Will Be Blood 2,’ and a sense of humor is a vital intention of the film.”

For the first time in her life, Bridget is responsible for taking care of a child. She admits that she doesn’t know what she’s doing a lot of the time. And it’s perhaps because of that honesty that Franny starts to warm up to Bridget and vice versa. Franny is a curious child who asks a lot of questions, which have the effect of Bridget examining her own life and beliefs.

That doesn’t mean that things go smoothly in their relationship. While spending time at a park, Franny gets a few unintentional bumps and bruises when Bridget lets Franny out of her sight for a few moments And when Bridget and Franny are at a library, and Bridget temporarily leaves Franny alone at a table to use the restroom, Bridget comes back to find out that Franny has emptied all of the contents of Bridget’s purse on the table (including her tampons) and yells out for everyone to hear: “Are you on your period?”

While she’s adjusting to her new job, Bridget also finds out that she’s pregnant. The pregnancy is unplanned, Jace is the father, and Bridget immediately decides to have an abortion. Jace is supportive and accompanies her to the abortion appointment. The movie makes a point of showing the medical and psychological effects of abortion, since Bridget’s post-abortion bleeding is shown for the rest of the movie. And although she has no regrets about having the abortion, Bridget doesn’t really discuss her feelings about it with anyone, even though Jace asks her to, and that supression of emotions eventually starts to take a toll on Bridget without her knowing it, until it all spills out in a pivotal scene in the film.

Meanwhile, Maya is going through her own personal issues, since she’s suffering from post-partum depression, but she isn’t getting therapy for it and is too ashamed to talk about it with Annie. Bridget sees the signs that Maya is depressed, but isn’t sure what to do about it. It doesn’t help that infant son Wally cries whenever Maya is holding him, but stops crying when Bridget holds him, which makes Maya feel like an inadequate mother.

“Saint Frances” also touches on issues of religion, specifically Catholicism. Bridget says she’s a lapsed Catholic, while Maya is a very religious Catholic. Maya is so religious that she’s been praying as a way to heal from her post-partum depression. Annie is not Catholic, but there’s a scene where Annie and Maya get Wally baptized by a priest in a church, and they have a baptism party afterward.

Bridget, who describes herself as “an agnostic feminist,” thinks “it’s immoral to have children” when the world’s resources are being depleted to dangerous levels. When Bridget’s parents come to visit her, she confides in her mother Carol (played by Mary Beth Fisher) that she has this pessimistic belief about human reproduction. Carol responds by telling Bridget that when she had children, she heard the doomsday warnings too, but “I gambled on our survival.” It’s a powerful moment that demonstrates how two people can disagree about an issue as important as parenthood and still respect each other’s opinions.

Another important scene in the movie is when Maya and Bridget confront issues of public breastfeeding and homophobia. When they’re in a park with Franny and baby Wally, a mother who sees Maya breastfeeding goes over and tells Maya to stop because she doesn’t want her children to see it. The offended mother also tells Maya that she’s probably exposing her breasts to attract the men in the park, and gets a shock when Bridget tells the woman that Maya is a lesbian. The scene, if written another way, could have turned into a cringeworthy, hysterical screaming match. Instead, it turns into a teachable moment for Franny on how to respectfully deal with conflicts and not sink to hateful levels.

There’s also a scene in the movie where Bridget faces some hard truths about her life, when it comes to her tendency to avoid committing to serious romantic relationships and career goals. Her feelings for Jace (who wants to be closer to her than she’s willing to let him) have to be put in honest perspective when she meets Franny’s guitar teacher Isaac (played by Jim True-Frost) and is immediately attracted to him. Bridget is so attracted to Isaac that she impulsively buys a guitar and asks him for “private lessons.”

And when Bridget is over at Annie and Maya’s house, she has an awkward and surprise reunion with a former Northwestern University classmate Cheryl DuBuys (played by Rebekah Ward), who is a successful businesswoman, self-help author (one of her books is called “Resting Rich Face”) and the mother of a boy who’s visiting for a playdate with Franny. A smug and condescending Cheryl tells Maya that Bridget (who dropped out of Northwestern after a year) was someone that her classmates thought would be “the next Sylvia Plath.” Cheryl then asks Bridget to run an errand for her, and Bridget gets a small level of revenge on Cheryl for humiliating her. (You’ll have to see the movie to find out what the revenge is.)

At the heart of the film though is the relationship between Bridget and Franny. “Saint Frances” is the film debut of Williams, who gives an entirely believable and impressive performance as Franny. The child has an emotional intelligence that is wise beyond her years without being annoying. And as Bridget, O’Sullivan’s performance has real depth in showing someone who can be immature and complicated but still a good person underneath her “hot mess” surface.

It also helps that O’Sullivan did not ruin the “Saint Frances” screenplay with over-the-top slapstick moments, which are predictable tropes in many comedic movies that have a child as one of the main characters. And under the very adept direction of Alex Thompson (who makes his feature-film debut with “Saint Frances”), the movie achieves the right balance of comedy and drama while maintaining realism and a consistent pace.

As for the “saint” word used in the movie’s title, it’s not because Frances is an ideal child. Perhaps it refers to the “miracle” that Franny achieves by changing Bridget from being someone who didn’t like to be around kids to someone who begins to understand that kids should be respected as individuals and not lumped into one stereotypical category. And sometimes, a child can see truths in ways that adults try to deny.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Saint Frances” in New York City on February 28, 2020. The movie’s U.S. theatrical release will expand to more cities in the subsequent weeks.