She could be anyone when we first see her, this auburn-haired woman, naked and seemingly alone in a rundown shower stall. Then details start to emerge: The shower is in a prison; the woman, Francine (Melissa Leo), is about to be released (or we might say rebirthed) into the world. But as implied by a nearly monosyllabic exchange with a parole officer—“Thank you,” is all our heroine can muster in response to the man’s insistence that she’ll be fine outside the clink—nothing we think we know about Francine will stick to her for long. She’s a specimen who resists classification in every way.
Such scientific terminology is appropriate to Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky’s spellbindingly unsentimental character study. Francine moves to her own strange rhythm through post-incarceration life, forging tenuous connections with people, animals (for whom she has a deep-rooted affinity) and sanity in a small rural town. And the filmmakers view their subject with a kind of yearning detachment, as if she were an organism under a microscope with whom they’d somehow bonded. The movie might very well have come off as a too-clinical experiment if it weren’t for Leo, who maintains a rivetingly mysterious aura even as her character’s behavior becomes increasingly bizarre. (When the mostly taciturn Francine furiously headbangs during an outdoor death-metal concert, it’s as if we’re watching a living, ever-mutating Rorschach blot.) There are no concrete answers to be found at the end of this cryptic protagonist’s journey, yet we can’t help but follow every move she makes.
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