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Female filmmaker wins top honor at CCFF for 'Saint Frances'

Female filmmaker wins top honor at CCFF for 'Saint Frances'

The 2019 Chicago Critics Film Festival was held May 17-23 at the Music Box Theatre, featuring nine films written and/or directed by women. Of the 24 films in the festival lineup, these four stood out as especially memorable features from female directors. [Saint Frances wins Audience Award - Narrative Feature from Chicago native, writer and star Kelly O'Sullivan]. 

Following its highly acclaimed Sundance Film Festival premiere, The Farewell made its Chicago debut May 20. Writer-director Lulu Wang was in attendance for the screening of her semi-autobiographical drama, which follows a Chinese family’s attempt to hide a lung cancer diagnosis from their beloved grandmother. Awkwafina stars as Billi, a struggling writer and American citizen who travels back to China to see her Nai Nai (Shuzen Zhao) under the guise of attending her cousin’s wedding. What ensues is a funny, heartfelt narrative that will leave audiences thinking about their own grandmothers. It’s an exceptionally touching film within a cultural framework that feels simultaneously fresh and familiar. The common custom of concealing tragic news from loved ones so that they can live out their final days in peace and with dignity might be completely foreign to viewers of The Farewell, but Wang’s own true story makes it feel personal and real.

Wang utilizes her 98-minute running time with plenty of well-placed humor that makes it easy to fall in love with the characters very quickly - which makes the film’s familial message pack even more of an emotional punch.

“I don’t think there ever is wrong moment to laugh,” Wang told FF2 Media’s Pamela Powell at the post-screening Q&A. “If it’s real to that person, than it’s OK. Because I don’t have a rule about when it’s OK to laugh, it’s always fine.”

Wang, who will receive the Sundance Institute’s 2019 Vanguard Award in June, elaborated on the unique tone of The Farewell, which manages to be a memorably funny drama about crossing cultures and the universal language of family. “This is my voice,” Wang said of the funny-sad balance in the film. “I’ve tried to do it other movies unsuccessfully and some of the pushback I’ve actually gotten in the past has been like, ‘This is a serious movie, you can’t put comedy in it.’” That blend of comedy and drama is just one of many reasons to appreciate A24’s The Farewell, along with Awkwafina’s emotionally resonant performance and a great supporting cast.

Jian Yongbo, Kmamura Aio, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Ziang, Tzi Ma, Lu Hong and Zhao Shuzhen appear in a still from The Farewell by Lulu Wang, | Photo by Big Beach

From writer-director Ani Simon-Kennedy comes The Short History of the Long Road, a vagabond drama about living without physical roots. Nola (Sabrina Carpenter) finds herself alone on the road with nothing but her old Volkswagen van for shelter after the death of her father. She and Clint (Steven Ogg) never lived in one place, travelling the country and living out of their vehicle, accepting odd jobs and learning through old textbooks. When Clint dies, Nola must learn to manage on her own, with the help and hindrance of the people she meets along the way.

Chicago-based actress Rusty Schwimmer plays one of those people, church-going Marcie who takes Nola in to stay with her family. Schwimmer told the Music Box audience after the screening that “it’s always more intimate” working with female directors, noting how quiet and peaceful Simon-Kennedy’s set was throughout the filming process and noting the depth of Carpenter’s performance for such a young actor.

Though not free of road-trip cliches and tired nomadic tropes, Simon-Kennedy’s second feature film is ambitious in its simplicity. Its female lead convincingly stands on her own, with an especially memorable plotline about finding her biological mother (Maggie Siff). The Short History of the Long Road is a less-gritty Leave No Trace with more grounding than Float Like a Butterfly, but all three films share a father-daughter bond and tightly-packed messages of what it means to live freely.

Another windy city native, Kelly O’Sullivan stars in her film writing debut, Saint Frances (named audience narrative favorite). Screening in coincidental conjunction with Georgia’s abortion “heartbeat bill,” O’Sullivan spotlights the journey of one woman’s summer of pain and gain.

Sabrina Carpenter in The Short History of the Long Road (2019)

Feeling unsuccessful and unemployed at 34, Bridget accepts a nannying position for curly-haired whippersnapper Frances. Reeling from her new relationship that resulted in pregnancy and subsequent abortion, Bridget grapples with her future and her faith (or lack thereof).

Chicago creates a character in itself, here, acting as a backdrop from Bridget in her city apartment to the high-class, tree-lined streets of Highland Park. The film passes the Bechdel-Wallace test easily, centering on the hardships of womanhood: postpartum depression, the shame of breastfeeding in public, rocky relationships and connection with children.

Like the six-year-old character at the center, this film is not afraid to take risks, be brave, be unapologetic and uncomfortable. It paints the Catholic faith in an honest light, never mocking the beliefs of its followers, but rather showing the guilt it can create in a person’s core. At times overly graphic with the bloodied troubles that plague every woman with a period, Saint Frances has something to say and says it loudly.

Audiences selected the Opening Night feature presentation as winner of the Audience Award for narrative feature. The seventh edition of the festival is the largest crowd to date with 40 percent increase in audience attendance.

© FF2 Media / May 2019

Photo credits: Chicago Critics Film Festival | IMDb