As the quietly passive title character of writer-directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky’s Francine, an ex-con (whose crime goes unstated) struggling through menial jobs and bottled-up desires in the rural Hudson Valley of upstate New York, Melissa Leo mostly keeps still and watchful. Not entirely bereft of initiative or the will to relate to people, she gently guides a co-worker at the local one-stop store in efficiently thawing shrimp, and in a hopeful feint at communal affinity drifts into a lawn party of teens moshing to a punk band, briefly whipping her hair around to the thrash before just as suddenly leaving in a wide-angle retreat. Francine forms brief relationships, from a satisfying bathroom quickie with a polo fan during a cocktail-server gig, to falling into bed with a club-going female neighbor (Victoria Charkut), then with a recovering alcoholic stablehand (Keith Leonard) who’s clearly smitten with her. But this woman’s undoing is her all-consuming and unbalanced passion for animals, from the dogs and cats she collects in her spartan home to those she ultimately tends to as a veterinary assistant.
Cassidy and Shatzky at first seem to view Francine’s over-filled heart with pathos, tripping up only when they cut from a guinea pig pawing at a plastic cage to their protagonist sealed in her commuter bus, but as Leo portrays her critter attachments with growing intensity, from sobbing as she gives a mouse a solemn funeral to tenderly clutching a dog as it’s euthanized, her empathy clearly emerges as a sort of mania. The filmmakers’ intentions are serious and their oblique approach to narrative is encouragingly ambitious, but Francine ultimately suffers from keeping its anti-heroine’s stunted emotional capacities at arm’s length. (When a lake outing with her horse-tending swain is derailed by Francine’s firm rejection of his lunging advances, it’s seen in long shot from the shore, and the choice seems as unproductive and misguided as the couple’s crossed wires.) Bringing their character study full circle when an overreaction to an isolated animal tips Francine’s obsession into an agitated meltdown with lasting consequences, Cassidy and Shatzky surrender the observational detail of the film’s early scenes for a more deterministic, distanced pity that fails to fully mine the fearless elements of Leo’s performance.