SXSW FILM 2012
By Linc Leifeste | March 21, 2012
Director: Brian M. Cassidy, Melanie Shatzky
Writers: Melanie Shatzky, Brian M. Cassidy
Starring: Melissa Leo, Keith Leonard, Victoria Charkut
I saw a lot of dark, slow-paced films at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival but none came even close to the slog that is Francine. Intensely dark and paced at the slowest of crawls, this film is not for everybody, as evidenced by the five people that walked out during the screening I attended or the woman sitting next to me who continually sighed deeply, squirmed, covered her eyes, yawned and fidgeted throughout the entire screening.
Francine (Melissa Leo) is a middle-aged woman who is just being released from prison as the story begins. No details are given on why she’s been imprisoned or how long she’s been there but the sense you get is that it’s been a while. The counselor that sees her before her release lets her know that adjusting is going to be a tough road for her and that turns out to be no lie. She moves into a run-down dwelling and finds employment at a pet store. The film focuses on the mundane aspects of her life, her training by the store manager, her daily duties and her shoplifting. It’s not long before she’s let go, stealing a puppy on the way out.
The dog is added to a stray cat she has already adopted and before long she is stockpiling pets at an alarming rate, seemingly trying to give and receive the love and affection that she’s unable to experience in her human interactions. After a visit from church-going neighbor Linda (Victoria Charkut), Francine soon finds another job working at a horse stable through fellow church member and recovering alcoholic Ned (Keith Leonard).
After Ned’s romantic advances are unrequited, Francine moves on to a job at a veterinarian clinic. During her time here, the film presents some of its most moving and grueling images, presenting actual procedures in an actual clinic, including the euthanasia of a dog. The increasing turmoil and disarray inside of Francine are captured by the rapidly deteriorating condition of her living quarters, with animals and their feces and filth slowly taking over the space. Leo’s performance as a shell-shocked recidivist is powerful as she warily sleepwalks through her days, speaking few words and struggling to find any real connection to other people. It’s clear that things are not going to come to a good end and that Francine’s return to prison is probably only a question of when, not if.
For those who have the stamina to sit through it, Francine is a beautifully crafted and performed story of a woman’s struggle to integrate herself into a society with which she feels no sense of kinship. Its smothering sense of somber despair gives the overwhelming impression of reality, it’s documentary-like feel dragging the viewer along on a slow ride to crushing defeat.