Melissa Leo marvelous but ‘Francine’ miserable to watch

When you watch a movie that proudly wears its miserable reality on its sleeve, the rare moments of sunlight tend to stand out.

In “Francine,” a small-budgeted picture shot in upper New York state, one such rare sequence comes after a church meeting, when two people who might possibly make a tentative connection are bicycling on a country path. An old folk song plays on the soundtrack, the colors of the day change, and an actual sense of relaxation — maybe even pleasure — comes into the movie.

From what we’ve already seen, however, we can guess this won’t last. “Francine,” a film by Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky, is an immersive study of a morose woman who drifts through life after being released from prison.

Francine is played by Melissa Leo, the Oscar-winner from “The Fighter.” Over the course of her veteran career, Leo has never backed away from complete engagement with her roles, and this part is no exception.

In re-entering society, Francine takes a series of different jobs associated with animal care: first at a pet store, then a stable, then a veterinary clinic. It doesn’t take long to recognize that her comfort zone with animals is much broader than with human beings.

A few people around her take steps toward establishing some sort of connection, but with blank results. She’s already in some sort of gray zone, separate from the regular human world.

The filmmakers have a strong sense of the physical place Francine inhabits: the rundown houses and parking lots from nowhere. This could be anywhere in the United States, or anywhere that progress seems to have passed by.

The verisimilitude extends to a sequence inside the clinic in which euthanasia is performed on a dog, which I suppose tests the limits of what counts as gritty reality in a movie. It certainly will test the sensitivities of viewers.

I admire Melissa Leo’s complete devotion to this performance, which is the most eloquent aspect of the film.

Because the character is treated in an opaque way, without the usual layering of traditional storytelling, we are left with a parade of anti-social (or at least deeply awkward) behaviors, and no hope in sight. In this, “Francine” is like “The Comedy,” a film it otherwise does not resemble at all. The character and idea is keenly observed, if miserable to watch.

“Francine” (2½ stars)

Oscar-winner Melissa Leo commits herself completely to this opaque study of an awkward ex-convict whose life in a rural area revolves mostly around animals. Leo is well-observed in her performance, although the movie’s miserable manner makes it a challenge.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity, subject matter.

Showing: Northwest Film Forum.

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