Indie auteur Bob Byington’s (7 Chinese Brothers, Infinity Baby) latest feature Frances Ferguson lends itself to the ‘Mumblecore’ filmmaking style where actors mix with non-actors to create a sense of disarming naturalism. It’s the story of a small-town sex scandal, with Byington regular Nick Offerman narrating, or perhaps commentating, with a quirky style that gives the film many of its moments of comedy.
Frances Ferguson (Kaley Wheless) lives a somewhat mundane life in small-town USA, North Platte, Nebraska. With a population of 8000, it’s hard not to know almost everyone. Frances finds herself in an unhappy relationship to Nick (another Byington regular, Keith Poulson) who she knew for only three months before marrying. They have a daughter Parfait (Ella Dolan) who’s 3, or is she 4? Her parents can’t quite agree on her age. Life’s become so insipid that when Frances spots Nick masturbating in his car to internet porn across the road from their house, the ensuing confrontation is more an eye-roll than an argument.
Frances doesn’t appear to have any friends and is bordering on an anti-social personality disorder, a woman cast adrift in the US Midwest, a loner. The relationship with her mother (Jennifer Prediger) reflects that of her husband and daughter, providing little intimacy or support. When Frances gets a job as a temp teacher in the local high school, she has no moral issue flirting with a 17-year-old school jock, ‘the boy’ (Jake French), setting up several indiscreet rendezvous’ with him – at one point meeting him at the local laundromat dressed as a cheerleader, only to be spotted by other students from the school. Frances has little to no feeling for the boy; she just wants to feel…something?
Offerman’s narration describes one encounter with him as ‘an idea, like a person interacting with a hologram’. After a tryst with the boy, she’s arrested and charged as a sex offender, the charge seeming to have little to no effect on her nonchalant demeanour.
Punishment follows crime and Frances cops 14 months in the big house followed by six months parole. Leaving prison, she becomes the local celebrity sex offender, not an experience to be relished. Attending group and cognitive behaviour therapy during parole she finally shows a little emotion and becomes a more rounded character. Coming out of her shell with the assistance of therapists (David Krumholtz, Dante Harper), she comes to the realisation that change is only possible when bad things happen, fondly looking back on therapy as a cathartic moment in her life.
Central to the work is Wheless’s laid back yet nuanced performance, driving the film to its amusing conclusion. Based on actual events, with a screenplay by Scott King, Frances Ferguson is a whimsical look at a serious subject, and well worth a look.