Who would you trust to look after your children? Cinema’s nannies come in many guises, from the magical Mary Poppins to the miracle working Tully, with more than a few malevolent incarnations in between. But the winner of the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival presents us with the most unlikely candidate for the job and who, somehow, manages to make a half decent fist of it. Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking this is just another childcare drama, though, because Alex Thompson’s feature debut, Saint Frances, has a whole lot more to say about women, their lives and our image of them.
The unlikely nanny is Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan, who also wrote the script). At 34, she doesn’t have life figured out in the slightest, but she’s convinced about one thing. She doesn’t want a baby. Not yet, anyway. It means that, when she discovers she’s accidentally pregnant, there’s only one course of action and it’s one with lasting effects. At much the same time, she quits waitressing to look after Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams), a six year old with mothers who have their hands full with their respective careers and looking after a newborn son. Frances is demanding, but in a way that steers Bridget towards realising some truths about herself and the choices she’s made in her life.
The film’s already attracted attention for its frank and confident approach to periods. Bridget bleeds. Monthly, as she should. But blood is also part of the abortion process – she dislikes the clots being likened to “cute things, like raspberries” – and she continues to bleed afterwards without warning. The film neither sensationalises nor does it shy away: instead, it’s played for laughs with built-in discomfort, and that comes from something so much a part of everyday life being seen so rarely on screen. All of which feeds into its questioning of the image of women. Nannies are traditionally women, but being female doesn’t mean you’re inherently maternal. And women even go so far as to shame each other: when Maya (Charin Alvarez) breastfeeds her baby in a public park, one of the other mothers asks her to do it elsewhere.
Where Saint Frances scores is in its ability to surprise. It’s a film with a cumulative power that sneaks up on you, revealing itself in its final scenes, which pack a truly emotional punch. The overarching message is perhaps too familiar: life is never predictable and you shouldn’t judge yourself for not knowing what you want or need. Moreover, you can bet your bottom dollar that the person who appears to have life figured out is the one who truly doesn’t have a clue. But what makes the message hit home is that the characters are so believable, especially Frances herself. Freed from the confines of adulthood, it’s the simplicity that goes with her handful of years that makes the people on the screen – and those of us in the audience – sit up and listen.
Drama, Comedy | Cert: tbc | Vertigo Releasing | Ed Film Fest At Home from 25 – 27 June 2020. In cinemas from 10 July 2020 | Dir. Alex Thompson | Kelly O’Sullivan, Ramona Edith-Williams, Charin Alvarez, Max Lipchitz, Lily Mojekwu.