Evoking films like "Winter's Bone" and "Wendy and Lucy" in presenting a sparse, narrowly focused portrait of a lone female protagonist in adverse, not to say desperate circumstances, "Francine" is the kind of small film made for the festival circuit, and for which the festival circuit was made. It is no less reliant on a powerhouse central performance than its aforementioned forebears, if anything more so, as here extraneous detail is pared back almost to the point of nonexistence, leaving Melissa Leo front and center of every scene. It is a testament to her absolutely definitive portrayal that one simply cannot imagine what the film might have looked like with anyone else in the role. Some elegant framing and photography aside, the film lives and dies on her performance, and this being Leo, at her most vanity-less and instinctive, it mostly lives.
The film is essentially a soil sample of a woman's life, a cleanly-extracted moment in time pulled from the landscape of her experience with no reference to anything on either side: it is narrow, but it goes down deep. In fact it really feels like the motion of the film is downward into this character, and not along a span of time. Without the distraction of backstory or future plans, we get to examine this brief period, and its few encounters, from all sides, to see how the strata of loneliness can settle on layers of neglect and mistrust, to build a picture of how a person's ability for human connection can atrophy through underuse.
How you will respond, however, relies entirely on how you enjoy this sub-genre overall. It is as fine a portrait of marginalisation as you could hope for, but if you want anything, even a tiny bit more than that, you won't find it here. It is bleak stuff, few moments of levity lighten the mood, and the ending, while entirely apropos, is no less pessimistic for being slightly amigibuous: did some part of Francine always know her time out here was just an interlude? How much of this was consciously predestined, and how much unconsciously? Not exactly starting on an emotional high point, and then following a gradual, unravelling, downward trajectory, the movie plays like a mournful single-instrument solo, in a minor key. Depending on your mood and your tastes, you may find yourself beguiled by its sparseness, or longing for something a little more orchestral.
There is something of another character in the film in the shape of the Hudson Valley landscape in which it is set. The film is financed by the Hudson Valley Film Commission, and it's also where Leo lives IRL. There is a beauty to the landscape, true, but we don't feel its picturesqueness nearly as strongly as we feel its pitiless impersonality. The landscape is a reflection on Francine's state of mind, in both places, human sounds can scarcely penetrate the deadening silence. So not exactly a tourist brochure.
As a story, "Francine" lacks a great deal. But as a series of minutely observed details that illustrate a person's state of mind, it is impressive. Francine bizarrely headbanging along to a metal band playing an impromptu daytime gig to a few spectators; Francine sucking on a tiny kitten's paw or sobbing into the fur of an old dog who's being put down; Francine minutely withdrawing from a tentative potential kiss; all these scenes fit together to form a greater mosaic image that may not be exactly dynamic, but does chime with the clear, deep, sad ring of truth. [B]