In the opening minutes of "Francine," Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky's narrative feature debut, Melissa Leo stands naked in a prison shower, more exposed than she has ever looked onscreen. Her fragile, desperate state lingers as the character copes with life post parole. She defines the otherworldly tone, but the directors fail to build on it. While "Francine" distinguishes itself with atmospheric strangeness, Cassidy and Shatzky never create a satisfying whole.
In the ensuing 74 minutes, Leo's Francine wanders a desolate countryside town, freed from jail under mysterious circumstances. The reason for her incarceration never revealed, "Francine" uses the past incident to fuel its solemn protagonist's listless journey for a meaning in life. Initially employed by a pet store, the job culminates with her abrupt decision to jack a puppy and head back to her dilapidated home, where her pet menagerie slowly builds until her residence looks like a bleak, impoverished version of Dr. Doolittle's lab.
Constantly frightened, soft-spoken and confused, Francine rarely speaks, either because she has nothing to say or can't find the right words. Either way, it comes as no surprise that she finds the ideal companionship in animals, taking on a farm gig and offering soothing words -- her only moment of pure serenity -- to a horse. The animal metaphor for Francine's lost state reaches a fever pitch when she shifts to a job in a veterinarian's office, where one memorable bit involving cat surgery seemingly represents her own feelings of societal disconnect. Later, she endures the apex of her emotional connection to animals by taking part in the euthanizing of a dog. Though these individual scenes cast a powerful spell, the lack of detail makes it hard to invest in the overarching drama.
Cassidy and Shatzky previously directed the mesmerizing documentary "The Patron Saints," which follows the residents of a nursing home passing through life in a perpetual daze. In that context, the collage of profoundly dejected characters combined into an extraordinary display of solemnity that bordered on the avant garde. "Francine," however, boils that same mood down to a single enigmatic persona, which comes with a set of expectations for a backstory or some other form of elaboration that never arrives. In her first major role since winning an Oscar for "The Fighter," Leo has chosen a boldly anti-formula work of supreme minimalism, the kind of showcase that many actors dread. It's a commendable achievement in an otherwise uneven production.
All the same, "Francine" marks the start of a promising career for the filmmakers, more than anything else demonstrating their eye for small moments: Leo's hair blowing in the breeze when she gets her first taste of freedom or happening upon an outdoor heavy metal concert and quietly rocking out, a single tear falling down her cheek. Her sexual encounters range from a lesbian indulgence with one of her neighbors to a bathroom quickie, fleshing out the way she simply drifts from scene to scene in search of a purpose. In short, she suffers from the same problem as the movie, but both make it clear that they deserve consideration, flaws and all.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having premiered to generally positive reception at the Berlin International Film Festival, "Francine" is likely to continue its successful run at the SXSW Film Festival next month, where its microbudget indie spirit should please that contingency. Distribution prospects are slim, but Leo's role should garner enough accolades for some kind of small-sized theatrical/VOD deal.