Directed by Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky
This character study, pared of any and all backstory, follows the titular ex-con (played by latter-day Oscar favorite Melissa Leo) upon her release from prison as she tries to acclimate to life on the outside. What she had been incarcerated for, and for how long, we're never told; instead, we're presented with discomfiting evidence of her rocky reentry into society. The determinedly hardscrabble milieu recalls any number of turn-of-the-decade American indies, but that’s not to say Francine feels familiar in its minimal telling. The debut narrative feature by husband-and-wife filmmakers Cassidy and Shatzky takes in the surroundings with an unfiltered sensitivity: the camera often seems to levitate at the fringe of the action, and atmospheric noise is pushed to the fore of the sound design.
The movie might be both elusive and stripped-down, but its game plan becomes clear early on. A key note in Leo’s performance is the retiring smile, as she finds momentary release in situations wonderfully suggestive of her past life (she headbangs rapturously at an outdoor death-metal show) as well as more generically redemptive (she seems at peace sitting near a river dotted with lily pads). Unable to hold a job—at a pet store, a racetrack, stables, or a veterinarian’s office—she winds up filling her home with stray cats and dogs, doting on them in increasingly alarming ways, while withdrawing further from human contact.
We don’t come to know a whole lot about Francine other than the quiet strengthening of her conviction that she doesn’t belong in the company of other people. The tack can sometimes scan as stubborn, but if ever a film were true to its subject, it’s this one—reluctant to yield up answers that Francine herself might flinch from providing. It’s a testament to the filmmaking, then, that there’s still plenty to process: some evocative rural-New York scenery, and the nature of the sad impulse behind the protagonist’s formation of her own private animal kingdom. Perhaps she so desperately needs solace from these creatures because she has lost everything else; perhaps she feels the need to see herself as one of them, to will herself into their world, which is seductively unrulier than the constricted society she’s been turned out into—or simply less complicated.
Opens September 12