It is almost hard to call Francine a character study, even though that is what it is, because we find out so little about the main character.
With Academy Award winning Melissa Leo as the lead, Francine is a day in the life of a middle-aged woman who is struggling to make the adjustment from a long prison sentence to the freedoms of normal society. A lot can be said without the use of dialog and Francine mostly abides by that. This indie film believes that less is more.
This is what we do know, Francine (Melissa Leo) has just been released from prison and because the warden says, “It’s going to be quite an adjustment” you can assume it was a long sentence. This is confirmed when she gets a drivers license when the clerk tells her to put down her previous address. The next scene she is getting a tour of a pet store where she will be a self-stocker. She has barely spoken a word and for the most part only nods her head to communicate. What we do not know is for what reason did she spend in so long in prison for.
On a bus ride home from work we see her take supplies from the pet store so there is possibility it could be from theft. It is not long for the management to realize that she is not a good fit for the store. The middle-aged woman is very soft spoken, barely makes eye contact, and because she is still adjusting to society outside prison walls her personality is not visible. Before long she is let go. However, as she is leaving the job for good she sneaks out a puppy to take home.
The only time she seems comfortable is when she is around animals. Her next job is at a horse stable which lasts about as long as the pet store job and eventually she is working at a veterinarian. Maybe it is because she knows that the animals do not expect her to have conversations with them. Maybe it is because animals will love you without judgment, something she is not used to. Whatever the reason may be, Francine literally surrounds her life with animals at work as well as at home.
Francine starts going to a local church where she meets a man named Ned who is celebrating his one year of sobriety. He lost his wife, son and his job that he had for 18 years. Just as the two begin to hang out with each other outside of church he goes in for a kiss and Francine rejects him. The film focuses on the rejection for quite a while to emphasize the impact it had on both of them.
You can tell that Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky have previously made documentaries because Francine feels like one. It follows Francine around while she does everyday activities. The shots are often choppy and camera is not steady. There was not much of a score or background music either. The idea is to make it seem more realistic and it works.
Francine shows Melissa Leo like you have rarely seen her before. It is a challenging role because it required so little lines of actual dialog even though she spends nearly the entire time in front of the camera. We never find out what makes her tick since we are shielded from what she is actually thinking. On one hand that is what makes her character so intriguing but on the other it makes it frustrating.
It is a slow moving film that provides little hope that one can ever fully transition back to a normal life after prison. It is almost hard to call Francine a character study, even though that is what it is, because we find out so little about the main character. It is those reasons that the film feels so unsettling. The film never intends to answer the questions it brings up which may disappoint some.