SXSW Review: Frances Ferguson


Frances Ferguson is bored. She’s a 25-year-old substitute teacher with a dead marriage and a mother who is just as annoyed with her daughter as her daughter is with her. One day at school, she meets a student and, as dry and awkward flirtation ensues, eventually sleeps with him. As the consequences play out, Fran handles each challenge with the same dry and terse cynicism the entire way through. As the film’s narrator states so eloquently early in the film,

“Fran knew she was supposed to feel something, but she couldn’t think what”

Francis Ferguson
Director: Bob Byington
Rating: NR
Release Date: TBD

This film isn’t going to appeal to a large audience, and that intent is known from the start. We first meet Fran (Kaley Wheless) as she calmly argues with her mother while screaming internally (something we experience multiple times throughout the film). She never expresses an emotion beyond discontent and often speaks in exaggerated sarcasm. In one scene, Fran says she’s allergic to chocolate before taking a bite of a cupcake and overdramatically falling to the floor like a 5-year-old being asked to put toys away.

As the movie unfolds, the narrator (Nick Offerman) provides insight on Fran that allows her character to retain in her dynamic while still providing viewers with some semblance of depth, however shallow it may be. After she’s arrested and her husband (Keith Poulson) finds out via the news, he asks her when she was going to tell him. She casually responds, “I was going to wait as long as possible.” She’s a mid-twenties millennial with added dissociation. 

During one scene with her therapist (she meets with a therapist, parole officer, and attends a group therapy session). He asks what the variable is between her and her failed relationships. She replies, “I’m the variable. I’m the one who doesn’t get along with all of them. Except my father, we get along.” When asked why she thinks that’s the case, she reminds the therapist that her father is dead. Is she really the dysfunctional one? Her mother isn’t much of a mother and she and her husband aren’t in love with each other. Why are they together in the first place?

Part of the problem with a movie like this is it chooses not to dive deeper into established relationships between characters. Fran and her husband only have a few scenes together, each one just a cynical back and forth between the two. We don’t see much of Fran as a mother, or as a daughter. Even the narrator tells us when we’ve seen the last of a character, encouraging viewers to immediately forget about that person. The focus is on Fran, but her story never feels fully developed.

Fran’s action with her student is more out of apathy than anything. As quickly as it begins, it’s broken off and she’s shipped off to trial. The boredom of her life reflects in the film itself. As mentioned earlier, the style, pacing, and storytelling itself are not going to garner mainstream appeal. Wheless does a fine job portraying the detached Ferguson, and Poulson as her equally detached husband suits the role. Beyond them and Offerman’s voiceovers, the cast feels underqualified and unrealistic. A slow-paced movie can work with the right people, but unfortunately, these flaws detract from the film itself.

One thing the film sheds light on is how Fran is perceived by others once she’s out of prison. Her group therapy advisor attempts to flirt with her because he knows what she did. She gets looks from others, men and women alike, judging her silently or otherwise. At one point, she finally addresses the fact that she’s a sex offender and how she sees the shade being thrown her way.

Frances Ferguson has its moments, namely Wheless’ laconic character, but is generally not engaging enough to maintain a general audience’s attention. There’s a niche for this type of film that viewers with peculiar tastes may find more agreeable.

Nick Hershey