You will be redirected back to your article in seconds


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

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

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A soft-spoken, intensely withdrawn woman with years of pain and alienation etched deep into her haggard features, Francine (Leo) is introduced taking a shower in preparation for her release from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.


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

More Film

  • Brett Leonard Boards 'Elijah'

    Film News Roundup: 'Lawnmower Man' Director Brett Leonard Boards 'Elijah'

    In today’s film news roundup, “Elijah” gets a director, a French fry documentary starts shooting and “Uglydolls” moves its release date forward. PROJECT LAUNCH Brett Leonard, best known for directing ”The Lawnmower Man” and “Virtuosity,” will direct the supernatural feature film “Elijah,” based on the Old Testament prophet. More Reviews Broadway Review: 'To Kill a [...]


    SAG-AFTRA Commercial Negotiations Set for February

    With no fanfare, SAG-AFTRA and the ad industry have set a mid-February start for negotiations for a successor deal to the union’s master contract, Variety has learned. The current three-year deal — which covers about $1 billion in annual earnings — expires on March 31. SAG-AFTRA and the Joint Policy Committee of the ad industry [...]


    Oscar Nominee Sondra Locke Dies at 74

    Actress and director Sondra Locke, who received a supporting actress Oscar nomination in her first movie role for “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” died Nov. 3 at 74. The Los Angeles County Public Health Department confirmed her death. She died due to breast and bone cancer, according to Radar Online, which reported that she [...]

  • Clint Eastwood and Alison Eastwood'The Mule'

    Clint Eastwood: Why Alison Eastwood Came Out of Acting Retirement for Her Dad

    Clint Eastwood’s daughter Alison Eastwood was done with acting after appearing in 2014’s “Finding Harmony.” Or so she thought. It was a Friday night and she and her husband were heading to dinner when her father’s producer Sam Moore called. “He [says], ‘You know, your dad wants you to do this film,” Alison recalls. “I [...]

  • 'Dead Women Walking' Review: Uncompromising, Powerful

    Film Review: 'Dead Women Walking'

    The sober and gripping “Dead Women Walking” focuses on the final days of a series of female inmates facing the death sentence. Divided into nine chapters, each inching its way inexorably closer to the moment of execution, the drama turns the fragmentation of its approach to a powerful advantage. Not only do the individual stories [...]

  • Sam Mendes

    Sam Mendes' World War I Drama '1917' Set for Awards-Season Launch on Christmas 2019

    Universal Pictures has given an awards-season release date of Dec. 25, 2019, to Sam Mendes’ World War I drama “1971.” Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners is producing “1917” through its DreamWorks Pictures brand. “1917” will open in limited release on Christmas Day then go wide two weeks later on Jan. 10, 2020. Mendes wrote the script [...]

  • Ventana Sur Queer Latin Film Panel

    Ventana Sur: Panel Talks Merits, Setbacks in Latin Queer Cinema

    BUENOS AIRES — Four venerable professionals from the cinema world joined on Monday evening for Queer Cinema In Latin America, a frank discussion on Latin America’s role within the queer filmscape for Ventana Sur’s Industry conference series held at the UCA campus in Buenos Aires. Touching on advancements in character arc and notable achievements in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content