People tend to get caught up in the plot details of movies rather than looking at the more important elements of character and tone, but because so many filmgoers want to know the story, here’s the short version: Frances Ferguson, the title character, is unhappily married to her porn-obsessed husband and only mildly interested in raising her daughter Parfait. (Yes, her baby’s name is Parfait.) As a substitute teacher at a local high school, Frances goes about her mostly mundane life until she finds herself surprisingly interested in a boy she spends some time with in detention. (Nice foreshadowing.)
“…Frances, on paper, should be completely unlikable.”
She soon finds herself masturbating in a parking lot while gazing at the boy. Frances’ interest in this unremarkable student leads to a brief affair, which leads to a laundromat encounter wearing a cheerleading uniform, which leads to her arrest, which leads to court, which leads to prison, which then leads to.. redemption? You get the idea. Frances, on paper, should be completely unlikable. And while the details of the story may sound salacious, ripped from the headlines of familiar news stories, that’s not exactly the way things play out as directed by Bob Byington.
The performance of newcomer Kaley Wheless is simply terrific. Wheless is completely in sync with Byington’s dry comedic tone, her performance holds it all together. Along with the whimsical musical score and delightful voiceover narration by Nick Offerman, it’s the kind of comedy that should not work, but somehow does. The humor derived by the clashing of disparate elements is similar to the pleasure derived from two tastes that should not go together like, say, avocado toast or butter in coffee or salted caramel. And isn’t that how humor to work? Frances Ferguson is not the traditional black comedy that we see so often in the world of independent film because through the eyes of protagonist Frances, each uncomfortable relationship she has is laid bare in service of subtle comedy. Or tragedy. Take your pick as they are both connected. Humor is found in the end of Frances’ marriage, the relationship with her self-obsessed mother, an incredibly awkward “date” with some schlub played by Martin Starr and a prison cupcake eating seen that you can savor and enjoy.
“The performance of newcomer Kaley Wheless is simply terrific. Wheless is completely in sync with Byington’s dry comedic tone…”
I guess you could say that the type of comedy that succeeds in Frances Ferguson is an acquired taste, but one worth discovering. Like a new cocktail. Once you take your first swig and understand that this is not a light beer, an old-fashioned sure goes down smooth.
Tone is really the directors’ job in the end. It’s all about tone. While every independent film has its share of flaws, an original tone will always overshadow those flaws and can help a film rise above story issues or even low production value. And not that these were issues here, the film flies by fast and never overstays its welcome at just 75 minutes. Wheless and Byington clearly worked to get that tone just right and the actor/director chemistry is palpable making this a dry comedy not just worth seeing, but seeing more of. And I look forward to their next creation.
Frances Ferguson (2019) Directed by Bob Byington. Written by Scott King. Starring Kaley Wheless, Nick Offerman, Keith Poulson, David Krumholtz, Martin Starr, Jennifer Prediger, Bill Wise, John Gatins, Dante Harper, Megan Jerabek. Frances Ferguson premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
9 out of 10