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Zack Mosley [Film Festival 10.10.12] drama

Melissa Leo is amazing as Francine, a shy ex-con who begins hoarding animals as soon as she is released from prison. Unable to relate to people in the same way she relates to cats and dogs, she drifts through a series of odd jobs, passionless sexual encounters, and pet acquisitions until she is half out of her mind and living in filth. Unfortunately, this is not just the set-up I'm describing to you. It's the entire plot of the film.

During the post-screening Q&A, co-writer/director Melanie Shatzky mentioned a real-life animal hoarder who served as inspiration for Francine. The real-life Francine's animals were confiscated by the authorities. In most movies, an event like this would occur about fifteen minutes in, prompting the protagonist to deal with unwanted conflict. This is what is referred to in screenwriting parlance as an "inciting incident", or sometimes a "catalyst", ignoring for the moment that some consider inciting incidents and catalysts to be two separate plot beats. Without an inciting incident to set the story in motion, we're left with a simple character portrait. I have nothing against simple character portraits, I'm not trying to be a pedant, but hear me out.

The essence of character is revealed under pressure. You don't figure out what stuff you're made of until you're forced to confront conflict. This is true both in drama and in real life. Remember that scene from Adaptation, when Robert McKee berates Charlie Kaufman for holding the opinion that "nothing happens" in real life? Here's the thing: Charlie Kaufman (the real Kaufman, not Nicolas Cage) appears to agree with what McKee is saying in that scene. If he disagrees, how do you explain all the stuff that happens in his films? People don't go to the movies to see "real life". At bottom, we're all looking for the emotional ride, the visceral thrills, the intellectual stimulation.

So, back to Francine. Does it qualify as a story? I suppose you could view Francine's release from prison as the inciting incident. Then what? She shoplifts pet food from work. She watches a heavy metal performance in a park. She steals a puppy. She gets fired. She finds a new job. She brushes a horse. A co-worker asks her on a date. A neighbor invites her to a roller-skating party. She acquires some kittens and fellates their paws. She throws big handfuls of kibble all over her deteriorating home, stepping over urine stains and doo-doo. And on and on and on. Francine is only 74 minutes long, but it feels like it has been stretched too thin even at that length. Co-writers/directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky are experienced documentary filmmakers, and they have made their first narrative feature with the mindset of a documentarian. They simply observe a series of events as they happen, regardless of whether those events are dramatic.

I don't relish writing negative reviews, especially of small independent films, which live or die on festival buzz. So, for the record, this review is not a total pan. If it was, I would not have opened with blatant pull-quote material like "Melissa Leo is amazing". Leo apparently sought the filmmakers out, campaigning for the lead as they trolled rest stops and bars for an unknown non-actor. She is totally committed to her performance, willing to be ugly and pitiful and totally self-effacing for the sake of the character. You instantly forget you're watching Oscar Winner Melissa Leoâ„¢ in the opening moments of the film, as she stands sagging and naked in the harsh light of a prison shower. The cinematography is good, and in all technical respects the film is well-made.

But Francine is ultimately too lightly sketched, too lacking in the basic ingredients of drama. I have no doubt it paints a realistic portrait of a typical animal hoarder basic lifestyle and psychology, I only wish this character had been thrust into an actual story.

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