It can be difficult to stand out in the world of independent filmmaking. The low budget nature inherently lends itself to telling variations on stories we’ve heard before. Most film festival indies are criticized for their use of tropes and clichés, when the question that should be asked is not have we heard this story before but do we believe this telling of it? These films are not designed to break new ground conceptually – they are, by their very nature, character studies. And it can be remarkably easy to ignore the clichés and tropes if one simply believes in the people up on the screen. Such is the case with two well-liked films from this year’s event, including the Audience Award winner.
That prize went to the powerful “Saint Frances,” a movie that really snuck up on me and walloped me emotionally in the final scenes in ways I wasn’t expecting. The reason this film has cumulative power is simple: we believe in its characters. The authenticity of the entire production is remarkable, and when that genuine believability is used to send a message, even if it’s one we’ve heard before, audiences listen. The message this time is a classic: life isn’t easy or predictable and stop judging yourself for not knowing exactly what you want or need. Women especially are so often inundated with what they should want from life, especially when it comes to relationships and children, that sometimes it takes the wisdom of a child to break free of the rigidity of adulthood.
Kelly O’Sullivan, who also wrote the film, gives a truly excellent performance as Bridget, a 34-year-old “server” looking for a better job and a better relationship. She finds both, first meeting a nice guy and then getting a great job as a nanny for a 6-year-old named Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams). Neither turn out exactly as expected when the former produces an unwanted pregnancy and Frances’ parents (Charin Alvarez & Lily Mojekwu) seem to be struggling. Throughout, O’Sullivan and Thompson deftly refuse to judge their characters. Bridget makes mistakes, but they feel organic and genuine, not designed as “movie lessons”. It helps that O’Sullivan’s performance is one of the best of SXSW 2019 and that Edith-Williams is unforgettably adorable.
Ultimately, “Saint Frances” is about a lot of things but I took the most emotional power away from what I think it says about self-judgment. We spend so much of our lives judging ourselves about our job, our bodies, our relationships, our families – and it does so much more harm than good. Six-year-olds don’t judge. They love and need love. And, as cheesy as it sounds, watching this 34-year-old woman learn a lesson or two about accepting herself and defending those she loves hit home for this 43-year-old man. It is both a beautifully specific character study and something that has resonance beyond the demographic of its cast. You'll want to watch for it when it's inevitably released.
There’s undeniable emotional resonance in Annabelle Attanasio’s “Mickey and the Bear” too, and again it’s largely due to the performances of its leads. In this case, it’s Camila Morrone as a Montanan teenager and James Badge Dale as her deeply troubled father. This one can’t avoid feeling a bit more clichéd than “Frances” and missteps over the line a few times from realism to manipulation, but the two leads are so good that it’s easier to forgive. Morrone is going to be a star and Dale should already be one.
Camila plays Mickey, and Dale her father Hank. He’s toxic in a dozen or so ways. He’s a single father dealing with PTSD and addiction. Well-sketched by Dale, he’s one of those people who has unmanaged demons and a deep well of selfishness. He’s dependent on Mickey in multiple ways and lashes out now that she’s turned 18 and is threatening to leave him. There are echoes of the masterful “Leave No Trace” in the way Annabelle Attanasio’s film tells the story of a girl realizing she has to leave her father behind to become a woman.
“Mickey and the Bear” has a few too many familiar beats and sometimes feels like a dirge when it comes to tone. It’s so oppressively bleak because we know that Mickey and Hank are beyond repair. We can see it in the way he emotionally abuses her, and so we just keep waiting for her to break the tie that could otherwise destroy her. And yet Dale and Morrone find a way to elevate what could have easily felt like poverty porn into something truthful. Again, we’ve been here and we’ve seen stories like this in indie cinema before, so success or failure rests on the shoulders of how much we believe that Mickey and Hank are real. Morrone and Dale make that easy to do, allowing the criticisms to fall away. It doesn’t feel like a cliché if you believe in it.