“Saint Frances” Is The Fascinating Story of a Straight White Woman Aiding a Beautiful Interracial Lesbian Couple

What is it about Saint Frances that makes it so special? One obvious answer is that it makes an effort to show us the world as it is. Our heroine Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) is a directionless 34-year-old white woman with who lucks into a nanny job for an interracial lesbian couple and their young Black daughter, the titular “Saint” Frances (Ramona Edith Williams). The couple, comprised of the religious Maya (Charin Alvarez) and the strong-willed Annie (Lily Mojekwu), are reluctant to hire Bridget at first due to her inexperience with children and general tactlessness. But after having their second child, Maya soon succumbs to stress and turns to Bridget for her youth and energy. To complicate matters further, Bridget quickly realizes that she’s pregnant and goes through a painful abortion while learning how to care for Frances. The juxtaposition of learning how to care for a child while choosing not to pursue motherhood for herself adds an air of melancholy to the film that cuts into the sweetness.

Saint Frances is a film bursting with empathy, from its sincere script to its storybook cinematography. With a vibrant color palette and luminous, sun-soaked imagery it is reminiscent of other recent feel-good indies like Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. The film, directed by newcomer Alex Thompson and written by the film’s star Kelly O’Sullivan, is a timely update of the classic adult coming-of-age tale that has been normalized by decades of film festival staples. Saint Frances premiered at one such festival (SXSW) early last year and since has gained considerable momentum leading up to its recent theatrical release.

It was fascinating to watch a young white woman enter the home of two gay women of color and make a concerted effort to support them, without centering herself or her own personal experience. Though O’Sullivan is playing a character we’ve seen before — in Tiny Furniture, Frances Ha and countless other films — she sets herself apart by being a protagonist who listens to the people around her. Bridget is at her best when she’s observing, and her worst when she gets caught up in her own ennui. Every time she neglects Frances, the film is quick to bring her back to earth and remind her of what she’s supposed to do. One moment after she calls Frances a brat under her breath, the little girl falls in a lake and Bridget is immediately reminded that it isn’t always about her. But those moments are few and far between. For the most part, Bridget is good to Frances, encouraging her to be confident and have faith in her parents. Frances, in turn, like many adorable film children, teaches Bridget how to enjoy life again.

But in the background of this feel-good tale is a rich relationship drama between two mothers trying to achieve their own version of the American Dream in suburbia. Maya is dealing with postpartum depression after having their son Wally, but Annie can’t get time off work to be with her. As a result, Bridget functions as a stand-in wife for most of the summer, giving Maya as much support as she can. But she doesn’t know the first thing about motherhood and her presence in the house slowly causes tension between the couple. Luckily, Saint Frances doesn’t succumb to melodrama by splitting the couple up, but the film isn’t afraid to show cracks in the marriage. Oddly, I found myself thinking about the early seasons of Mad Men where Don was away at work all day while Betty managed the children while grappling with her own mental illness. That’s where the comparison between the two couples end, but the fact that I could compare them at all signals a shift in the kind of lesbian narratives we see on the big screen. Saint Frances feels like the beginning of a trend where lesbians of color can be portrayed as matriarchs of an average American family, with mundane and universal marital woes.

There were times while watching where I wished the entire film was about Maya and Annie staring down middle age together with their young children, just living their lives in love. In the few scenes where they are together, they exchange a knowing gaze. It’s incredible how much intimacy is revealed through a narrative that is largely not about them. Near the end of the film, Annie cries while telling Bridget how proud of Maya she is, and in that moment the film reaches an emotional truth that stretches far beyond its runtime.

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Jourdain Searles is a writer, podcaster and comedian living in New York City. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, and The AV Club among others. You can follow her on twitter @jourdayen.

Jourdain has written 2 articles for us.

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