A glum but tenderly observed micro-portrait of a woman struggling to re-enter society after being released from prison.

A glum but tenderly observed micro-portrait of a woman struggling to re-enter society after being released from prison, “Francine” marks a well-judged fiction debut for writing-helming partners Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky. Centered around Melissa Leo’s minutely inhabited performance as a shy type who bonds more readily with animals than with humans, this sad, offbeat character study is often willfully ambiguous but gets at something true and stirring, even unsettling, about its protagonist’s stunted emotional growth. Strangely absent from Sundance, where it would have stood out among its shoestring-budgeted brethren, the pic has limited prospects but calling-card merits aplenty.

A soft-spoken, intensely withdrawn woman with years of pain and alienation etched deep into her haggard features, Francine (Leo) is introduced taking a shower in preparation for her release from prison. Leo’s vanity-free baring of her body not only conveys a sense of her character’s frailty but also underlines, at least in retrospect, how little of herself Francine exposes to the world emotionally.

In perhaps the script’s most deliberate omission, neither the crime for which Francine was sent to prison nor the duration of her sentence is ever made clear, a decision intended to confound the viewer’s sense of what she’s been through and what she might still be capable of. After being told by a prison administrator that she’s in for “a period of adjustment,” Francine moves into a cramped shack in a nondescript rural town (the pic was shot in New York’s Hudson Valley) and gets a job at a pet store.

Initial signs are encouraging. When Linda (Victoria Charkut), a friendly woman from a nearby church, invites her to a roller-skating social function, Francine accepts. There, she’s introduced to Ned (Keith Leonard), who’s handsome, available and clearly interested. Yet Francine seems far less interested in establishing meaningful relationships with other people than with animals: In no time at all, her home is crawling with cats and dogs, on whom she lavishes a cloying, almost childlike attention.

Cassidy and Shatzky have collaborated on a number of documentaries, and their patient observational powers serve them well here in seemingly artless shots of mundane activity that nonetheless feel distilled to the bone. Rather than lock his protagonist into a tighter, more claustrophobic aspect ratio, d.p. Cassidy lenses in widescreen, the better to underline Francine’s essential disconnect from the people and places around her.

Each scene is constructed to fill in another tiny sliver of this woman’s damaged identity, but only ends up raising fresh questions: Why does she bend over for a random creep at the racetrack, but resist Ned’s sweetly affectionate advances on a date? Why does she accept Linda’s amorous advances one drunken night, only to pull away and never mention it again? Where exactly does she get all those pets? Viewers may be disappointed that concrete answers aren’t forthcoming, but the story’s destination, arrived at with finality after a brisk 74 minutes, makes intuitive sense.

Her recent Oscar-winning turn in “The Fighter” notwithstanding, Leo remains committed to doing finely detailed character work beyond the Hollywood margins, the rewards of which are in full flower here. It’s a near-wordless performance that’s painfully eloquent on a gut emotional level; on the rare occasions when she does speak, it’s in an unnaturally high-pitched voice that deepens one’s sense of Francine as a lost little girl.

The stripped-down production is convincing in every modest particular, in a way that may remind arthouse audiences of the small-scaled yet detail-attentive films of Kelly Reichardt. The authenticity of the story is never more evident than when Francine cradles a dog being treated by a veterinarian (played by a real-life one, Mike Halstead), a scene Leo plays with a delicacy that’s piercing beyond words.

Francine

Production

A Washington Square Films and Pigeon Projects presentation. (International sales: Washington Square Films, New York.) Produced by Joshua Blum, Katie Stern. Executive producer, Anna Gerb. Directed, written by Brian M. Cassidy, Melanie Shatzky.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Cassidy; editors, Cassidy, Benjamin Gray, Shatzky; art director, Alder Lakish; costume designer, Christina Cole; sound, Nikola Chapelle, Robert Albrecht, Joshua Hilson; re-recording mixer, Nicholas Sjostrom; line producer, Mishka Brown; assistant director, Brad Payne. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 12, 2012. Running time: 74 MIN.

With

Melissa Leo, Victoria Charkut, Keith Leonard, Mike Halstead.

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