Review: Life begins at 34 in director Alex Thompson’s award-winning comedy drama about a rudderless singleton, who confronts deep-rooted fears and insecurities after she fumbles her way into a position of responsibility caring for a six-year-old girl. Saint Frances coolly navigates hot button topics – abortion, postpartum depression, breastfeeding in public – with understated elegance and candour. The script, co-written by Thompson and lead actress Kelly O’Sullivan, revels in the minutiae of everyday life and, refreshingly, does not blow out of proportion the central character’s stumbles on her way to hard fought self-enlightenment. The menstrual blood-soaked aftermath of a one-night stand, which might be played for gross-out giggles or discomfort in clumsier hands, is a catalyst for genuine tenderness.
A potentially harrowing consultation about the termination of an unplanned pregnancy is casually punctuated by an ultrasound technician who asks, “Do you want to know if it’s twins?” Pacing is deliberately slow to allow contemplative words to breathe and the cast to fully inhabit richly drawn roles including a star-making turn from wunderkind Ramona Edith-Williams, who strikes a perfect balance between cuteness and precocity.
Bridget (O’Sullivan) is a restaurant waitress clamouring for direction in her uneventful life. “You’re in your 20s, it gets better,” a stranger assures her at a party. “Actually I’m 34,” coolly responds Bridget. The same night, she sleeps with nice guy Jace (Max Lipchitz) and falls pregnant. With Jace’s unwavering support, Bridget opts for a termination shortly before she attends an interview for the position of nanny in an affluent suburb of Chicago. Annie (Lily Mojekwu) and Maya (Charin Alvarez) are looking for someone to care for their bright, rambunctious daughter Frances (Edith-Williams).
The mothers are taken aback by Bridget’s unvarnished honesty when they probe her relationship with her older brother. “He has a job and a house and is very responsible. We don’t have a lot in common,” she responds. Bridget lands the job as a last-minute replacement for the preferred candidate and awkwardly integrates into the family. She witnesses tension between Frances’ mothers and forges a deep bond of trust with her obstinate charge, who asserts that it is better for an adult to read her a book because “hearing it helps my brain development”.
Saint Frances is a beautifully calibrated portrait of lives in chaotic motion, underpinned by sparkling on-screen rapport between O’Sullivan and scene-stealer Edith-Williams, particularly in a divine church confessional. Confident writing complements the uniformly excellent performances, cherishing the gradual development of the characters. “I don’t know why I’m crying. I’m an agnostic feminist!” remarks Bridget as she opens the floodgates to openly discuss her feelings. We know why we are crying – because Thompson’s picture trades unabashedly in raw emotion and we buy every heartfelt and bittersweet word.
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Review: Motherhood comes in many forms in Thom Fitzgerald’s fish out of water comedy, which transplants a Southern Baptist wife from the heartlands of Texas to the mascara-ed melting pot of present-day California. Screenwriter Brad Hennig gleefully dips into the wig boxes of La Cage Aux Folles, The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and Kinky Boots to use the art of drag performance as a lesson plan for tolerance, empathy and dogged determination.
Two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver adds another feisty yet lovable matriarch to her repertoire, essaying a quietly spoken woman of God, who draws parallels between the women in her local church choir and the volatile egos clamouring for adulation at her late son’s drag bar. “Different songs, same divas, some of the same wigs too,” she quips, establishing a brisk tempo for one-liners that co-stars are happy to mimic. Lucy Liu relishes an amply proportioned supporting role as a single mother, who hides behind her waspish wit, while veteran New York cabaret star Jackie Beat relishes her moments in the spotlight as the drag club’s potty-mouthed emcee.
Maybelline Metcalf (Weaver) is a conservative choir mistress in the Texan town of Red Vine (population 1,501), who has been estranged for 10 years from her gay son Ricky. She learns that her boy died from a drug overdose and leaves behind her disapproving husband Jeb (Hugh Thompson) to ensure Ricky is “put to rest properly” in San Francisco. After a flamboyant memorial service, Maybelline discovers that she is the reluctant heir to her son’s business, Pandora’s Box, a floundering club hosted by Dusty Muffin (Jackie Beat), which was once the pride and joy of Ricky and his boyfriend Nathan (Adrian Grenier). “He never stopped loving you either, even when I begged him to,” a grief-stricken Nathan informs Maybelline.
Defying expectations, the Texan transplant employs her skills as a musical director to encourage resident drag queens Cherry Poppins (Mya Taylor), Joan of Arkansas (Allister MacDonald) and Tequila Mockingbird (Oscar Moreno) to sing live rather than lip-sync. Aided by Ricky’s sassy best friend Sienna (Liu), Maybelline rediscovers her lust for life through her son’s sequin- and rhinestone-bedazzled legacy. She also opens her husband’s eyes to compassion beneath fluttering rainbow flags.
Stage Mother works its crowd-pleasing charms in broad strokes, bookmarked by well-choreographed musical numbers and a winning performance from Weaver. A romantic subplot involving a chivalrous San Francisco concierge (Anthony Skordi) isn’t entirely necessary but oils the wheels of a linear plot. Fitzgerald applies just enough glitter to the film’s most touching moments, like Maybelline’s intervention with one of the drag sisters, to shepherd his picture to its unapologetically final chorus.
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