Saint Frances is in cinemas from 24 July 2020.
Saint Frances begins, as many movies do, with the meeting of a man and a woman. When Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan, who also penned the screenplay) meets Jace (Max Lipchitz) at a party, their chemistry sparks into a night of drunken passion. In the cold light of day, however, things take a surprising turn; sheets and bodies are daubed with blood, Bridget having unexpectedly started her period. While the pair may be somewhat taken aback, they handle the situation with humour. There is no shame, no embarrassment, just a shared joke about something that is not only entirely natural, but will be familiar to legions of women.
That this sequence (and the film as a whole) is so refreshing speaks to the enduring problem cinema has with exploring the realities of the female experience, and judging women for their behaviours whether biological or psychological. In setting out to write Saint Frances, O’Sullivan was determined to confront the challenges of being a woman head on.
“It’s based on my life,” she explains. “I wrote it with my voice in mind, with my sense of humour. I wasn’t going to shy away from the inherent mess of being a woman. Emotionally, too, it’s arduous to go through these experiences. There was always a chief intention to not be squeamish, and to show that there’s no need to shame ourselves or others.”
This clear-eyed approach is central to the rest of the story, in which Bridget discovers she is pregnant and, unsure whether she wants a child, has an abortion. Again, there’s no melodrama here; it’s a decision in which she’s comfortable and confident, even if she is somewhat unprepared for the physical and emotional repercussions, and which doesn’t colour the rest of her narrative.
“It was important for us to have a film that has abortion as a plot point, but doesn’t define this person for the whole story,” says O’Sullivan. “I think that is a trap that a lot of these stories fall into; she is now ‘the woman who has the abortion’. That will be the line in her obituary. No. It’s one event amid a whole lifetime.”
Following her abortion, Bridget spends a summer as a nanny to mixed-race same-sex couple Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu) – who are themselves dealing with their own complex problems, including Maya’s crippling post-natal depression – and their spirited six-year-old Frances (a scene-stealing Ramona Edith-Williams). Yet, crucially, this isn’t presented as a way to make Bridget come round to the idea of motherhood, but simply as a chapter of her life that informs who she is at that given moment.
“The number one thing I wanted to avoid was that Bridget has a great summer with this child and now she wants to be a mother, because that’s just too clean,” says O’Sullivan. “It was important that Bridget starts in a place of ‘I know I don’t want kids right now’, and she also ends in a place of ambivalence. We’re not trying to take any sort of stand on that [choice]. It’s so individual. A lot of times my own mind is changing based on where I am in my life, and we wanted to present that as a totally normal and valid viewpoint to have.
As well as O’Sullivan’s perfectly pitched screenplay and some assured, sensitive direction from Alex Thompson (O’Sullivan’s real-life partner), the film boasts an excellent cast that shoulders its weighty themes with natural ease; not least Edith-Williams as the smart, surprisingly sage Frances.
“The only notes we gave [Ramona] before we started filming was an email Alex sent to her mum saying that the tone of the film was going to be super naturalistic,” says O’Sullivan. “So she came in and would ask smart questions about the story, or her relationship with Bridget, so that she would know how to navigate the scene. The amazing thing is that everything Ramona says is entirely scripted, which just speaks to her incredible performance.”
Another standout in the cast is Mary Beth Fisher as Bridget’s mother Carol, who can barely hide her frustration with her daughter’s lack of direction. To her belongs one of the film’s many standout scenes, in which she admits to Bridget that, as an overwhelmed young parent, she wanted to throw her screaming infant daughter against a wall. While many women will recognise this feeling, the fact that motherhood can be a curse as well as a blessing is yet another cinematic taboo which should be consigned to history.
“My own mother told me that story when I was a teenager,” O’Sullivan recalls. “I remember at the time I was like, “Wow, that’s really intense.’ But it’s always stuck with me because I know people experience things like that. I know, even from being a nanny myself, that motherhood is not just flowers and butterflies and magical moments all the time. There are times that it’s terribly boring and frustrating.”
That such universal truths should feel so utterly revelatory on screen is testament to the strength of O’Sullivan’s screenplay, but also the fact that audiences have long been starved of diverse female stories. O’Sullivan has hope, however, that the landscape is changing, thanks largely to the efforts of female creatives themselves; she cites Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag as notable examples.
“I feel so inspired when I watch other female filmmakers be open,” she says. “It compels me to say ‘If they can do that, then maybe I can take a half step further in terms of honesty and openness. I still don’t think this movie could have been made in the studio system right now; I don’t think it would have made it past one note session. But it does feel like an exciting time, where women are telling their own stories and are retaining creative control.”
O’Sullivan, who has spent her time in Covid-19 lockdown completing another screenplay about girls in high school, hopes that Saint Frances might help push that envelope a little bit further. “I hope it makes people see that stories that are authentic and true connect with people in ways that maybe some of the head honchos wouldn’t expect. I don’t think anyone would have read this script and bought this movie, but people are identifying with it, and connecting with it.”