There’s a striking moment near the beginning of “Francine” where the title character (Melissa Leo) can be seen poking her head out the window of the car that’s been hired to take her home from prison. Bathing in the oncoming breeze as an appreciative dog would, she gently smiles as the winds become deafening and in that instant, her kinship to animals becomes clear. Her connection to other humans, however, is less so and while it’s never specified why Francine was incarcerated, that dichotomy becomes a fascinating leaping off point for the first narrative feature from Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatsky.
Like their previous nonfiction film “The Patron Saints,” which documented a nursing home so vividly the smell of antiseptic practically wafted off the screen — and felt as though it was a guiding principle in terms of how nonjudgmental it was, “Francine” serves as a character study that allows the details to naturally rise to the surface. As the recent parolee, Francine barely speaks throughout the film, partly by choice since she’s clearly most comfortable around an always-growing brood of pets, but also because Shatsky and Cassidy often stop short of any conversations she does have, the aftermath of the words exchanged trickling out in later scenes at the same pace they slowly sink in.
Even though there’s precious few to communicate with out by her small cottage in the countryside, she’s only ever lured out by the series of jobs she gets to make a living (all involving animals) or by an innocent curiosity she has about the outside world. When she’s visited by a woman from a local church (Victoria Charkut) inviting her out to a roller skating fundraiser, she’s shown in the next scene navigating a dimly lit roller rink despite being an odd fit and in another scene where she hears the cacophony of a metal band from afar, she’s drawn in and lets the music wash over her, even if she stands out as alone in the crowd of outsiders, slinking off unnoticed after the song ends.
If Francine's withering connection to humanity sounds as if it’s dire subject matter, the filmmakers take great pains to keep the audience engaged. While humor is still not really a part of Shatsky and Cassidy's repetoire, they have a way of opening up the world around the insular character. In a literal sense, Cassidy, who's credited as the film's cinematographer, utilizes every inch of a wide frame to wrap Francine in both the warm embrace of nature and the more intimidating urban environments where she often shuts off. But the naturalism of the performances and the unforced storytelling keep the film afloat, buoyant as the ex-con is in navigating a hallucinatory post-prison life.
Leo is terrific in the lead role, largely bereft of the showy moments in "The Fighter" and "Frozen River" that finally brought her some much-deserved attention, but reminiscent of the more quiet power she held as part of the cast of “Homicide.” Even in the moments when she’s filmed from the back of the head, she’s a magnetic presence onscreen. In the rare moments she's not, "Francine" flirts with pretension, lingering on the verdant landscape at times for a tad too long when so many scenes already invite the audience to take it all in visually and aurally. (The sound design, which frequently overwhelms with the mundane drip of a faucet or the loud music of a club, is particularly affecting.) But "Francine" is ultimately a humble production, both in scope and intent, that yields a telling portrait of life on the fringes of both mental stability and American culture.
"Francine" does not yet have U.S. distribution, but it will play SXSW twice more on March 13th at 1:30 p.m. at the Alamo Ritz 2 and March 15th at 7:30 p.m. at the Violet Crown 1.