The camera in a mid shot comes into focus. There sits a blonde woman in court with a blue blazer and cream blouse. “This is the story of a woman cast adrift in the Midwest,” a voice over describes. This woman is the titular character of director Bob Byington‘s film Frances Ferguson: a hilarious deadpan dark comedy set in small-town America about a woman’s sexual indiscretion.
The film takes place in North Platt, Nebraska; population of 8,000 residents. “Everyone knows everybody or everyone,” the narrator opines. Frances Ferguson (Kaley Wheless) is miserable. She works as a substitute teacher, cares for her infant daughter Parfait, contends with a forgetful and nagging mother (Jennifer Prediger), and has a philandering husband Nick (Keith Poulson) — who spends his time parked in their driveway masturbating to porn. Frances dryly throws barbs at Nick, a man she married within three months of meeting at the mall, and her mother.
However, it’s her time as a substitute teacher that proves pivotal. She comes to have the hots for one of her students, a teenage boy: Jake (Jake French). She then spends time flirting and seducing him, even showing up to the laundromat in her old cheer leading outfit. But Jake becomes freaked out. Frances Ferguson is reported, thrown in jail, and sentenced to 14 months in prison and 6 months probation.
The film doesn’t hit its narrative or comedic stride until Frances is released from prison. We then follow her from her probation to her probation exit interview, as she confronts small-town celebrity and gender norms.
One of the undercurrents of Frances Ferguson is the expectation of one’s gender. Frances is obviously an attractive woman, and she’s often cognizant of either using her sexuality or the men who are only interested in her because of her sexuality. Some of the reaction shots of men who are turned on or jealous of a woman seeking sexual release in a teenage boy, are depicted with a sense of pathetic masculinity. Much of Frances’ dry wit is a reaction against the small town and small-minded men she confronts.
The film’s best moments come during the Group Therapy sessions. The motley crew, headed by the group therapy leader (David Krumholtz), is an assemblage of people with less of a filter than Frances and more weirdness to boot. The Group Therapy scene, like much of the film, recalls The Office. Dependent upon odd people thrown into one space together, with reaction shots, sharp zooms, and biting sarcasm mixed with inappropriate conversation, screenwriter Scott King‘s screenplay shines.
Byington’s film, visually and narratively is all types of playful. For one, the omniscient narrator (Nick Offerman) gives us saucy and biting commentary and sometimes departs from his role as dry wit — even breaking out into uncontrollable laughter. It’s also never clear who the narrator is because we’re also given voice overs from Frances Ferguson too. The film crosses between documentary and personal narrative in its storytelling.
The characters also wilt away or never show up (this isn’t a negative). When each character departs for good, the camera gives a full out of focus shot. In fact, Frances’ parole officer, repeatedly asks Shiela to handle tasks for him but we never see Shiela.
Also, Byington loves auditory queues, like a faint sharp scream that occurs during crucial questions. There, he blurs the lines between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Byington’s film becomes a quirky hodgepodge of vignette-based characters, visual delights, and cunningly used auditory queues.
However, the star of Frances Ferguson is obviously Wheless. Her performance as Frances is fantastic. She’s stoic, blunt, acidic, and harsh. Her comedic timing, delivered with fury and pace makes every zinger find its mark. Her performance has a charisma and a nonchalant vibe to it, and Wheless has mastered the “I don’t give a fuck face” and uses it to perfection here. In only her second feature film role, Wheless may be a star in the making.
With Frances Ferguson, Byington has crafted a funny dark comedy that’s at once a playful and sardonic tale of an outsider, and a brilliant commentary on gender roles.
An official selection of SXSW 2019