Melissa Leo barely speaks in “Francine,” a brief slice-of-life drama from filmmakers Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky; she’s playing a character so stifled and boxed in by life that she’s nearly mute. (We only know her name — presumably — because it’s the film’s title.) As the film begins, Francine is released from prison; we don’t know why she was there, or how long. She moves into a small, bare cottage; takes a series of low-paying jobs involving animals; amasses a collection of ill-cared-for pets; and still seems barely present.
Francine connects to animals better than she does with people, but doesn’t seem able to attend to their needs. She clings to a pair of kittens as if they’re sustenance, or a lifeline to a better world; at a stable during a short-lived job, she lovingly brushes the horses as if she suddenly feels at peace. But we gradually see the tidy cottage becoming overrun with neglected animals, with a dazed-looking Francine strewing pet food on the floor. Is she a recovering addict? Mentally ill? Traumatized by some event in her past? We don’t know and we never learn, and while it’s audacious on the part of the filmmakers (and of Leo) to keep Francine at arm’s length from us, it makes the film a frustrating experience.
Though the movie is very short, it feels meandering; the filmmakers are fond of long shots in which little happens, or that seem like a distraction. (We watch a cat being anesthetized for surgery, then meticulously shaved and prepped; it’s certainly diverting but doesn’t seem to have much to do with the story.)
By the end, we know little more about Francine than we knew at the beginning — except that there’s no hope for her. Thanks to Leo’s performance, we believe every moment of this sad, marginalized character, but we’re not sorry to see her go.
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