Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s SXSW winner has always upended expectations, and that might soon include this year’s unpredictable awards race.
Filmmakers Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson know the official log line for their charming dramedy “Saint Frances” isn’t exactly inspiring: “After an accidental pregnancy turned abortion, a deadbeat nanny finds an unlikely friendship with the six-year old she’s charged with protecting.”
“That log line, yeah,” O’Sullivan said with a laugh during a recent interview with Thompson. “We struggled with that line too. It’s so funny, every time we describe the movie, we just want to say like, ‘We know, but—’”
Thompson cut in: “It’s funny! It’s good!”
But that’s the sneaky power of the movie, starring and written by O’Sullivan and directed by Thompson, her partner both in work and life. The pair readily admit the log line smacks of cliche, but underneath that so often lurks the truth, one pulled directly from O’Sullivan’s own life. “It’s not going to look like every other version you’ve seen before,” she said. “It’s going to feel real and messy and sort of funny and strange, and I think once you dive underneath those cliches, that specificity of real life is what helps you to avoid them.”
“Saint Frances” came out of nowhere in early 2019 to score multiple prizes at the SXSW Film Festival, landing distribution with Oscilloscope and gathering buzz at other festivals along the way. Its February 2020 release was disrupted by the pandemic, but “Saint Frances” remained a critical favorite, and found its way to multiple Gotham Awards: breakthrough actor for O’Sullivan, who also stars, and the Bingham Ray breakthrough director prize for Thompson.
The film was initially on track for a small theatrical rollout, but when its release was upended by the pandemic, Oscilloscope pivoted to virtual distribution, launching the film in arthouses via its own virtual cinema scheme. While O-Scope, like other virtual cinema platforms, has yet to release figures for its latest ventures, something about “Saint Frances” kept sticking with both critics and audiences, enough to keep it very much in the conversation more than two years after it was made.
“Saint Frances” may not have been a commercial hit, but it remains one of the most beloved sleeper hits of the year, sitting pretty a 99 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and landing on multiple top 10 lists. “So much energy was put into making the film and the fear is that it comes out and then it just sort of disappears forever,” O’Sullivan said. “But it’s reaching more of an audience than we ever thought that it would and it’s still resonating with people. It’s because of critics who are able to look past that there are no famous people in, it’s a ‘small movie,’ but these movies do need champions.”
Thompson added, “For us, it was something very small and personal and basically made in a vacuum, and then suddenly, because of starting with SXSW and then a million other factors, it’s like this really weird domino thing.”
Though the Gothams are set to take place virtually on Monday night, the cast and crew continue to engage in an active awards campaign, including a recent SAG Q&A moderated by Carrie Coon (herself an awards season dark horse) and Tracy Letts. The movie may lack the same marketing oomph of other awards season contenders, but it deserves whatever it can get for offering the rare dramedy that subverts cliche and quirk at every time, instead offering up a revealing character study with real heart and humor. There isn’t a false note in the film.
The film follows O’Sullivan as Bridget, a believably struggling 34-year-old with none of the usual trappings of “adulthood” to anchor her: no house, no partner, no career, no direction. But Bridget’s biggest problem isn’t that she’s flailing; it’s that she’s resistant to grabbing on to the very people and things that might help save her. Enter Franny (the charming Ramona Edith Williams). In short order, Bridget snaps up a summer nannying job attending to the very cute kiddo, falls into a relationship with the sweet Jace (Max Lipchitz), and discovers she’s pregnant. Oh, and she’s very much going to get an abortion.
O’Sullivan has been honest from the start about the deeply personal inspiration for the film, and both press materials for the film and its public website include an open letter from the writer and star in which she shares that the film was inspired by her own pregnancy, one she knew was going to end in an abortion. “‘Saint Frances’ endeavors to normalize and destigmatize those parts of womanhood that we’re encouraged not to talk about. I wanted not only to talk about these subjects, but to show them onscreen unapologetically, realistically,” O’Sullivan wrote.
The writer and star, who previously co-wrote and co-directed the short “Ladies’ Night” alongside Carly Olson in 2017, initially thought she was working her way toward another short film. “It was a really slow evolution, because as I started writing it, it was just one scene and I never really thought that it would actually become a film,” O’Sullivan said. “And then I wrote another scene and another scene, but I would continue to evolve it and Alex was reading it and he was like, ‘You should keep going.’”
Despite some “vague” chats about hiring another actress, O’Sullivan had poured so much of herself and her own voice into Bridget, the pair never seriously considered giving the role to anyone else. Thompson had directed some shorts but had yet to settle on a project for his feature-length debut, so O’Sullivan said that the film really “became possible” to her when the couple made a deal: O’Sullivan would commit to finishing the script if Thompson agreed to direct the end result.
“It’s nice to be able to have a very informal, sort of casual nature to the way that we talk about things,” O’Sullivan said. “I think that’s why it felt sort of magical when it came together, because in the beginning, it really was just like we were sitting on the couch and I would hand him out the laptop and he read the pages, it didn’t feel wildly professional. I’m glad that something that feels really organic came out of that. I think there’s an authenticity and a sort of ease that’s in the film because of that relationship.”
Six months from when she started writing, they were shooting in their adopted hometown of Chicago on a shoestring budget under $150,000.
The first scene that O’Sullivan wrote appears early in the film, when Bridget and Jace wake up after spending their first night together, only to discover that Bridget has started her period and there’s blood everywhere (from her bed to her face). “It’s a really common experience, but that hasn’t gotten a lot of screen time,” she said. She knew that the scene would set the tone for the rest of the film.
As she put it: “There’s going to be a lot of blood and we’re not going to shy away from it. But there’s going to be a sense of humor and a lightness to way to the way that this is approached.” That’s “Saint Frances” in a nutshell: Honest, funny, and a welcome challenge to more sanitized visions of womanhood in film and TV.
The pair have kept busy during the pandemic. Thompson is preparing to direct a suspense film later in the year and O’Sullivan is working on a screenplay based on coming of age in her Arkansas hometown. They have binged straight through most narrative programming and zipped right into a heavy dose of food-centric TV (when we spoke, they had just wrapped up an episode of “Ugly Delicious”) — and next week intend to break up the monotony of quarantine life with a virtual trip to the Gothams.
“It just feels so impossible that this movie would get released, that people would champion it,” O’Sullivan said. “That they would still be championing it. It feels very surreal. When we saw that list of other films and people who are nominated, I was like, ‘This is unreal, how did we actually get here?’ That’s the way that I felt the entire time.”
“Saint Frances” is available on Blu-ray and DVD, plus on various VOD and streaming platforms, including AppleTV, Amazon, and FandangoNow.