Given Melissa Leo’s recent Oscar  for her fantastic performance in The Fighter, one would expect to see her in more and more large-scale Hollywood productions. However, the actress has surprisingly decided to participate in a micro-budget film that probably has less than 100 words of dialogue. Hours before a flight to her next shooting location, an excited Leo stopped by the Alamo Drafthouse, suitcase in tow, to talk about why she decided to star in Francine. The film follows a woman who tries and fails to reconnect with the world after countless years of institutional confinement.

Instead of dialogue, the film relies primarily on images and sounds to tell its story. However, Leo felt that her experience as a dramatic actor would help tie everything together. Indeed, her strong performance anchors the film, her facial expressions speaking volumes, effortlessly conveying the character’s inner turmoil. The young actresses’ talent was unquestionably invaluable to directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky, who were tackling fiction filmmaking for the first time (their prior features were all documentaries).

Francine isn’t a complete success. It suffers from being too minimalist, only providing glimpses of events that do require more investigation. Francine meets a man, loses jobs, and takes in animals only to turn her house into a stifling pigpen — but the themes aren’t explored in enough detail, and the camerawork isn’t quite strong enough to stand alone.

Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see an actor of Leo’s caliber willing to take a risk and lend her skills to a tiny film that relies on visual impressions rather than a driving narrative. Hopefully more A-list actors will follow Leo’s example and take that big pay cut to pursue art projects they truly believe in.

3/5 Stars

[caption id="attachment_25227" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Melissa Leo at the Francine premier."][media-credit id=5207 align="aligncenter" width="300"][/media-credit][/caption]