The camera in a mid shot comes into focus. There sits a blonde woman in court with a blue blazer and cream blazer. “This is the story of a woman cast adrift in the Midwest,” a voice over describes. This is 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 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 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.
The film’s best moments come during the Group Therapy session. 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. Depending 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 a 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 as well. The film crosses between documentary and personal narrative in its storytelling. The characters also wilt away or never show up. 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, the Byington loves auditory queues, like a faint sharp scream that occurs in 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 delight, 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. 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.
An official selection of SXSW 2019