SXSW 2019: SAINT FRANCES Finds Heart in Matters of Motherhood

A nanny and her charge navigate difficult waters

The personal is political, but in art sometimes the message can overwhelm the narrative. Such is not the case with Saint Frances, which debuted to great acclaim at this year’s SXSW Film Festival.

On its face, a story of abortion, same-sex marriage, and postpartum depression might be expected to give primacy to the politics, but here the personal rules. Writer (and star) Kelly O’Sullivan and director Alex Thompson flex their muscles for the first time in a feature length effort, but the result is mature beyond their years.

Bridget (O’Sullivan) is 34 and going nowhere fast. She hooks up with a genuinely good guy and becomes pregnant. Just before taking on a new job as a nanny for Frances (scene stealer Ramona Edith-Williams), she gets an abortion, something from which she suffers both physical–and eventually emotional–complications.

The moms, Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu), are well-heeled, forcing Bridget to move between worlds of relative haves and have-nots throughout. Maya is taking care of a new baby brother to Frances, becoming more and more overwhelmed by the day, while Annie works long hours, leaving the house a place of desperation.

Frances herself is really something. Head strong, cute (and she knows it), and observant mark this six year old who gives Bridget a run for her money while the two slowly bond, with only minimal bumps and bruises to show for it.

Bridget enjoys her new job, but it doesn’t fundamentally change where she’s at in life: hearing the tick-tock of her biological clock while still feeling aimless in love and career. She’s all strength and moxie, keeping pseudo-boyfriend Jace (Max Lipchitz) at bay while he endeavors to talk about his feelings.

She does find herself in a side-hookup with kiddie guitar instructor Isaac (Jim True-Frost, “Prezbo” from The Wire), with the result being a reminder that there are still shitheels out there in the world.

Eventually, Bridget has to face up to the repressed hurt she’s been feeling. She knows getting the abortion was both within her rights as an autonomous human and the right choice for her and her particular situation. Still, these matters of sex and love are tough, and she must deal with that.

O’Sullivan wanted Saint Frances to be an exercise in normalization. Women have abortions. Some couples are same-sex or racially mixed. People of faith struggle in spite of prayer. The more we repress these things the worse off we all are, and Saint Frances does a great job of mining this territory.

A special note about the cast. O’Sullivan is brilliant as Bridget, showing a wide range while carrying the narrative on her back, but it’s Edith-Williams that’s the true gem here. She turned six right as production started, but her performance makes that hard to believe. This is the best child performance in a motion picture since Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project. It’s that good.

Saint Frances won a “Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Voice” in the Narrative Competition category at SXSW. Here’s to hoping this film gets seen widely, as it is just the kind of authentic, heartfelt story our age needs.

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