I certainly like animals. I appreciate their beauty and marvel at their grace... but from a respectful distance, preferably involving a high fence or some sort of indestructible leash. In close contact animals and I tend to put each other on edge, and from there it is a tension filled waiting game until claws make an appearance. As a result of this I was easily pulled into Brian M Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky’s Francine much the same way my debilitating fear of heights kept me riveted to Man on Wire. At one point during the film the lead character grabs a kitten in each hand and rubs them over her face like a healing talisman. I found the directness of this moment incredibly moving even though I would no sooner attempt it than I would try to hug the guy on the subway carrying on a heated disagreement with Jesus.
When we meet the title character, played in a nearly silent performance by Melissa Leo, she has just finished lengthy prison sentence for an unspecified crime. She is set free to reenter society like a domesticated animal returned to the wild once all traces of its survival skills have been erased. Francine no longer has the ability - or the interest it seems - to navigate the intricacies of human relationships. She opts instead to seek oblivion at every opportunity, including boozing, headbanging to a local metal band, and anonymous sexual encounters. It’s only when Francine begins taking in pets does she find something approaching peace. Her oasis in the uncomplicated love of the owner/pet relationship is the beating heart of this modest, but effective, character study.
The story tracks Francine’s metamorphosis into a Crazy Cat Lady. Her tiny house is soon overrun with pets of all species and Francine is dumping dog food directly onto floors covered layers deep with foul newspaper. But unlike those reality shows which hold up shut-ins for our judgment and ridicule, the filmmakers here ask for understanding and empathy, not shock and pity. We root for Francine to find some small measure of happiness even as her unbalanced behavior clearly approaches a tipping point.
It might take a few scenes for fans of Melissa Leo to adjust to her in this role. Her trademark has always been outspoken toughness, but as Francine she is downright mousy. We catch hints of the familiar brash Leo persona peeking through but we sense that if that used to be part of this character it was beaten out of her long ago. Jean DuJardin recently won an Oscar for his wickedly charming riff on silent acting but if you want to experience real silent acting, straight up, check out Leo’s work here.
I wish I could report that the directing team of Cassidy and Shatzky were up to the level of their star. It’s not that they fail Leo, so much as they fail to completely connect the audience to Leo's performance. They set out to tell the story visually with minimal dialogue, but in that case the images need to carry more weight than they do here. The indifferent shooting style and slack pacing keep the viewer too far removed from the main character. To their credit, the directors do have a sharp eye for observing character detail, and when all is said and done providing Leo with such a solid showcase certainly outweights any shortcomings. Francine is a moving little sleeper of a film.
(Warning: There is a very convincing sequence involving a dog being put down that will surely be excruciating for pet lovers to watch. Rest assured - it's not real.)