Film Review – Francine
Re-entering society after being in jail can be a monumental struggle for some ex-convicts. Integrating back into a world that has certain rules and prejudices can be overwhelming. It can be a very lonely prospect, too. Often just getting into a daily routine is a challenge for the newly released. Making that adjustment is the focus of the low-budget independent movie Francine.
Melissa Leo stars as the titular character, and this really is her show. The movie is very focused on Francine as she is first released. We are never told how long she was imprisoned or for what crime, though it is assumed it is somehow drug-related. She sets herself up in a small apartment and goes about the business of establishing herself in the first of several new jobs. She’s very soft-spoken and internalized. Often only answering direct questions from whoever asks with one-word answers, never volunteering anything, she becomes attracted to the quiet acceptance from pets. She quickly starts adopting/stealing cats, dogs, hamsters—pretty much anything that will unquestioningly love her. Periodically emerging from her calm exterior comes behaviors like headbanging at a death metal concert, having a quickie with a stranger in a bathroom, or acting like the party girl we presume she was when she was younger.
Francine definitely feels realistic. Directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky, who have a background in documentary film, definitely present their attention to kitchen sink realism. The viewer gets a real sense that this is how life works for a lot of newly released prisoners. Quietly struggling through day-to-day life while dealing with very low-level jobs like disposing of animal carcasses that have been euthanized is very believable.
Leo is a talented actress. Whether it be her Oscar-nominated role in Frozen River, her Oscar win for The Fighter, or her accomplished small screen career (I have a personal love for everyone who was ever a cast member on Homicide: Life on the Street, one of the best TV shows EVER), she is always a welcome sight on the screen. And here she very much looks the part of a woman with a checkered past. She looks and acts like someone who’s possibly dealt with addiction or abuse. But Francine also often comes off like more of an acting exercise than a watchable film. For long periods of time. she is silently doing daily tasks or fawning over many, many animals. Leo is so inside herself here that it is hard for the audience to connect.
This is seriously Methody stuff. It looks real. But it’s hard to care. The tradition of “the Method” with a capital “M” is where Francine falls. Much was made of James Dean playing with a toy on screen in Rebel Without a Cause, or the patron saint of the Method, Marlon Brando, playing with Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On The Waterfront. Or, similarly, when Brando is playing with that kitten in The Godfather. Those moments are rightfully cited as small, interesting details in a performance, the kind that were seldom seen on screen. And, as character details, they are fascinating while still connecting with the viewer. However, imagine a movie that is nothing but those moments. Francine’s so far inside herself that watching her, you feel distant. It’s like a guitar player who turns her back to the audience during the entirety of a solo. You can still hear the music, but you feel left out. This can make the film’s short 75-minute runtime feel long.
The saddest portion of the film is the fact that Francine keeps acquiring pets in some sort of effort to fill some undefined void. In her small apartment she keeps several dogs, cats with a poorly-kept litter box, rodents, and feeds them all by sprinkling food all over the floor. I spent a good deal of the film’s runtime imagining how bad that place must have smelled. It plays a lot like the origin story of one of those sad animal hoarders you see on basic cable TV. Quite frankly, Francine’s story probably isn’t far from the reality of some of those people.
The effort to show realism for someone reentering society is to be applauded. And Melissa Leo is a talented performer. But Francine is also a somewhat cold project that is difficult to engage with.
Final Grade: C