There’s a great line at the halfway point of Saint Frances were the film’s central character is experiencing a strange existential conflict. Her mother asks her, “if you could chose between never having been born or being born into the life you’re in right now, which would you choose?”
Bridget genuinely doesn’t know how to answer.
Saint Frances is a small drama that received a brief theatrical release in 2020 after having been heavily appraised at the 2019 SXSW. I didn’t catch it in theaters (it was released around the start of COVID-19) but I finally sat down and watched a DVD copy from Netflix.
At times, the film is rather frustrating (for me). It’s a cosmopolitan drama about a 34 year old woman who’s only goals in life are to hookup with men and work nanny jobs that she’s not particularly skillful at handling. She rants about the patriarchy, has no moral qualms about aborting an accidental pregnancy and doesn’t want to commit to her live-in 26 year old booty-call. For good measure, she doesn’t even think it’s moral to have children in light of modern problems like climate change. Bridget is, in every sense of the world, a modern woman. She’s stubborn, independent and liberated from the constraints that would otherwise hold her back.
It’s fascinating then that she’s seemingly so haunted by her lapsed Catholicism and doesn’t seem so sure of herself or her choices. The film is operating on an interesting line of moral thought. Despite the fact that she has carved out the life she nominally wants for herself, her job requires her to regularly delve into concepts that make her uncomfortable.
As a nanny, she’s constantly working with children she is clearly uncomfortable with. The family in question is also Catholic and constantly pray around Bridget. While she’s not necessarily offended by their prayers (she’s otherwise very defensive over the couple because they’re bi-racial lesbian parents), Bridget is certainly uncomfortable with delving into the contradictions of lives she doesn’t necessarily want to live (or at least isn’t sure she wants to). At one point, Bridget goes as far as to admit to her abortion to the couple she’s been nannying too and starts crying. “I don’t even know why I’m crying! I’m an agnostic feminist!”
The symbolism here is somewhat convoluted by the fact that the Catholic family she’s trying to ingratiate herself to is progressive enough that they wouldn’t necessarily be offended by an abortion. This isn’t some sort of ironic redemption story about a woman returning to faith late in life. In practice, the movie just ends up being a drama about one woman’s own internal wrestling with her life choices.
As she reflects later in the film: “I know that I need to be better than I am. I want to be proud of myself.”
I’m curious just how much the drama of Saint Frances is rooted in purposely self critique. It’s clear that the movie’s heart is rooted in inner city progressivism and that the movie isn’t interested in interrogating the moral legitimacy of issues like abortion or progressive Christianity. For good measure, I believe the film was shot in Chicago. I’ve worked in many of the neighborhoods where the film takes place and I can affirm that her character fits in very well in the woodwork.
That said, it does acknowledge that the desire to live a feminist life comes at a cost. There’s a very real humanity to the film rooted in a rather mature sense of regret about life experiences. It understands how middle aged adults can struggle with the realization that life options slowly close to you as you get older. At the end of the day, you can’t have everything and the more choices you put off as a young person the less options you’ll have later in life. That’s an especially hard truth for women who usually have to choose early in life whether they want a career or a family. Often they don’t have the choice to change their mind if they feel they’ve made a mistake…