Strange and unsettling, "Francine" begins as a miniature, a doll's house of life's loose ends. Subtly, though, it blooms. On the strength of Melissa Leo's astounding performance, it pushes outward into a troubled society of haves and have-nots — becoming, quietly but forcefully, one of the best films of the year.
Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Schatzky's tiny indie, which screened Friday at the New Orleans Film Festival, is sure to be off-putting to some. Nearly bereft of dialogue, full of anxious images, it never points firmly at a single theme. Its story of a woman struggling to remake her life after being released from prison for an unnamed crime would seem, on the surface, to contain the same redemptive possibilities as "Down to the Bone," "Sherrybaby," and "I Loved You So Long," but the filmmakers cannily undercut this narrative of progress at every turn.
Rather, "Francine" inhabits a world of jarring juxtapositions, a scratched record of Francine's halting reemergence into the world, played on repeat. Early in the film, Francine whiles away a few moments in a country antiques store, floating on a romantic ballad's soft waves of sound. She soon leaves, and the sweet, optimistic strains of the 1950s become the heavy chords and screams of a death metal band, playing for a few patrons in a nearby field. The extended sequence that follows is a portrait of troubled souls: Francine slowly picks up the small crowd's violent motion, the snarling and punching, the uncontained rage.
The film's seemingly incidental images are not, in fact, incidental at all. What might be considered eccentric is instead an astute depiction of this country's underclass of anger. In "Francine," the 47% is not Republican or Democratic but forgotten, the shards of a broken system. Against hardscrabble stables and recovering addicts, "Francine" sets polo grounds and wealthy folks in fancy hats; inane managerial speak and middle-class condescension collide with rough-hewn gin mills and kids asphyxiating each other to get high. It's a world of tough work, if you can get it. And if Francine herself is any indication, transient and desperate, her home's menagerie of stray animals soaked in piss and shit and trash, below the invisible line between American dream and American nightmare it turns out you cannot.
Francine, then, is emblematic of our plague of problems without ever dimming into archetype. This is thanks mostly to Leo, whose body of work — from "Frozen River" and "The Fighter" to "Treme" and a great guest spot on "Louie" — has evidenced both an impressive range and a taste for challenging projects of any size. Here, in a nearly silent performance, without a shred of vanity or glamour, her remarkable control of the intimate detail comes through powerfully. She lines Francine's face with an unspoken history, the simple, stoic eyes hiding a world of pain behind them. Almost none of the film's pertinent information is conveyed by dialogue, and yet so much is conveyed; Leo's tentative movement contains more of her desire to connect, and her deep-seated fear of connection, than any monologue could.
Leo won't win an Oscar for her performance. She likely won't even be nominated. The film is too small, too discomfiting, the acting too stripped of the bombast that won Leo her own statuette. It's too bad. "Francine" will need all the help it can get to attract the audience it so richly deserves. Because for all of the decrepitude and dissatisfaction that permeate the movie, Leo and the filmmakers also find exceedingly beautiful moments — a whitewashed church spilling its human contents; a bike coasting down an empty road at dusk — to leaven the harrowing, quiet madness.
Leo herself, perceiving how even the smallest nuance of body language can animate a character or an entire film, provides one of these moments early on, suggesting the potential, however slight, for writing a different ending. Riding in the back of a taxi on her way out of prison, Francine looks at the rushing world with new eyes. She leans her head out the window and licks her lips, as if to taste the air.
Find out about screenings of "Francine" at the film's website.