The possibility that our futures hold nothing remarkable for us can seem like a nightmare. In Saint Frances, thirty-four-year-old deadbeat Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan, who also wrote the film’s screenplay) is well aware she’s not exactly where she should be in life, and anxiety over the fact cripples her self-esteem. The film covers her one difficult, transformative summer, as she leaves being a dissatisfied waitress and into a new career path, while doing so though she’s worried that time is running out on finding her established career, landing a life partner, and, especially, having children. Gently questioning our assumptions about what actually constitutes female success throughout, the movie sees Bridget not sure that she wants those things, all she knows is that she’s expected to want them. Her parents hint at how she’s getting older, and her younger, more relaxed lover (Max Lipchitz) wonders why she refuses to define their connection as a relationship.
But while all that’s happening, she gets the aforementioned job offer and is hired by a mixed-race lesbian couple (Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu) as a nanny to Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams), their precocious six-year-old. Initially a rather inept caregiver, Bridget gradually warms to her lively charge and her stressed-out employers. Over the summer beginning to make peace with herself and slowly having a larger impact on the family as a whole. The film does have its stray elements, like Bridget’s pursuit of a sleazy guitar instructor or a nature walk consultation with her wise parents, which feel obligatory, betraying the film’s somewhat formulaic nature. While also having some scenes that can feel forced and even a little hectoring, there’s others that feel modestly insightful. Still, with a warm heart and an empathetic mind, Saint Frances weaves abortion, same-sex parenting and postpartum depression into a narrative bursting with positivity and acceptance. It’s a film that’s refreshingly small and intimate; seeing Bridget’s bond with the family feeling organic and restorative, the movie making the argument that true family is wherever you find it. And if Bridget still lacks direction in her life, it could be because she no longer needs it. Tackling weighty issues with plenty of humor and empathy, Saint Frances may have some struggling stray elements, but it also has a keen specificity and plenty of honesty.
Alan Yang has become a familiar face behind much of the TV landscape, through both Parks & Recreation and Master of None. But with Tigertail, his feature debut as a writer and director, Yang tosses that résumé out the window. If he wasn’t widely revered for his work in comedy there would be no evidence of it in this earnest, soupy drama about the regret-filled life of a Taiwanese immigrant, Pin-Jui, who moved to America as a young man and left a piece of his soul behind. The film unfolds over the span of several decades, with the three different actors playing Pin-Jui, and clearly is ripe to be a three-hour epic, but has been cut down to a thin ninety minutes, leaving crucial details as crude, blunt points.
Opening with Pin-Jui as a young boy in Taiwan, where he loses his father and his mother, desperate to find work, leaves him with his grandparents to raise him in the rice fields of rural Taiwan. As Pin-Jui grows to a young man (Hong-Chi Lee) he continues his childhood romance with a girl named Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), but despite his romantic feelings for Yuan, his dream of living in America leads him to settle for the factory, where he works, owner’s daughter Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li), who eventually accompanies him to New York. Jumping to the present day (where the film also changes from stunning 16mm to digital), a much older Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) is living with the consequences of his decisions, though he’s reticent to talk about them. His emotional remove has put a strain on his relationship to his grown daughter Angela (Christine Ko), whose personal life has been adversely affected by his influence. Both have a practical side that keeps them at a distance from the people they care about, and both are too stubborn to come to terms with each other readily. He didn’t even tell her about her grandmother’s death because going to the funeral in Taiwan seemed like too much of a bother.
Tigertail is a feature-length accounting of why Pin-Jui has fallen so short as a nurturing husband and father, and it feels common to many stories we’ve seen before. We see Pin-Jui’s relationship with Yuan as a unrequited love story that curdles into bitterness, and even sours his marriage to Zhenzhen, who grows so alienated in New York that she takes small loads to the laundromat just to see other people. One of the film’s minor grace notes is that is doesn’t sideline Zhenzhen like Pin-Jui does, even though the story isn’t really about her. The conflicts that remain, though, sadly sit on the surface, seemingly expecting someone — anyone but the film itself — to draw out their tensions. Scenes that require drama feel starved of it, and scenes that don’t, feel overstuffed. We’re seeing an epic story in a far too narrow frame, making so much feel impoverished. There are particulars intended to give Pin-Jui’s life context, like a pop record that as the romantic associations of a Wong Kar-Wai film, but they’re so few and far between that they get freighted with too much significance. Yang has written too much of a everystory, a one-size-fits-all account of why second-generation immigrants might struggle to understand their parents. But, there just isn’t much to unpack here, or much to savor. Tigertail has big ambitions, admirable ones in fact. Sadly, though, its punching above its weight, telling a story that seems meant to be an epic but is a mere ninety minutes. Leaving the final product feeling underwritten and thin, never reaching its emotional heart.
Tigertail is available to stream on Netflix