Movie Review: ‘Frances Ferguson’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

Watching someone ruin their own life is rarely as fun as it is in Frances Ferguson, the latest film from director Bob Byington. The titular character, brought to life with deadpan aplomb by Kaley Wheless, feels as though she can only watch while her existence spirals down into mediocrity and beyond. Her stepmother (Jennifer Prediger) delivers criticism effortlessly and constantly, while her husband of three years (Keith Poulson) has reached such a level of matrimonial dissatisfaction that he frequently masturbates in the car before coming home.

Frances’ sporadic contributions to their household income include substitute teaching at the local high school, where she meets and briefly flirts with a student (Jake French). It isn’t long before the two start sleeping together. Inevitably they are discovered and, inevitably, Frances gets sentenced to prison.

Narrated with characteristic humor by Nick Offerman, the film follows Frances as she quite consciously makes choice after choice that decimates a seemingly stable, domestic existence. Offerman dispatches with the narrative excess too, flatly declaring “this is the last time we see” characters as they depart Frances’ life.

Newcomer Wheless finds the wry moments and cutting commentary buried in the screenplay (credited to Scott King) with ease. During a recent Q&A following a screening of the film at the Dallas International Film Festival, Wheless confirmed that the dry humor and awkward pauses were all there to being with, although the closed-mouth scream Frances often employs in response to her stepmother’s needling was a personal – and universally recognizable – contribution.

The film knows not to overstay its welcome, running at a lean 75 minutes. While most of the so-called encouraging developments have much darker origins, by the end Frances has begun to open up and carve out a life undefined by anyone but herself. And although the story briefly touches on the deeper themes of sexual harassment and gender bias, it wisely settles for a modest scope in the end. Not everyone will appreciate the bureaucratic jokes with a whiff of Kafka about them or the unceasing, good-natured cynicism Frances deploys as a defense. For those who enjoy rooting for the less-than-perfect, though, Frances Ferguson serves up a lovely option.

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