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CHARACTER STUDY: ‘Frances Ferguson’ is a wonderfully unforced drama

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‘Frances Ferguson’ takes a look at a teacher’s life after being charged as a sex offender for having an affair with a student. Courtesy photo


The wonderful thing about film festivals is how they can be a gateway to discovering new voices, cinematic styles and ways to challenge conventions. A film festival like Cucalorus gives opportunities for moviegoers to step out of their comfort zones and discover new sights and sounds. Film festivals helped me discover artists like Park Chan-wook (“Old Boy”) and Werner Herzog (“Into the Abyss”). One of my favorite Cucalorus discoveries is writer/director Bob Byington. In 2012, Cucalorus screened his film “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and I was hooked.

“Frances Ferguson” is an uncommon character study that takes us through the utterly chaotic world of Frances (Katey Wheless), whom we meet at the precipice of her downward spiral. She’s a substitute teacher in a loveless marriage and struggles to make any sense of the world she has found herself in. Her husband (Byington) is equally lost and the two trade low-volume barbs at one another as their wedded bliss has turned into a toxic mess. They have a child, Parfait (Ella Dolan), who feels obligatory and like just another point of contention in their rapidly disintegrating relationship.

At school, Frances catches the eye of a handsome student and begins to fantasize about the kind of illegal activities that turn teachers into tabloid headlines. In spite of being well aware of the circumstances, she starts an emotional affair that soon turns physical. Eventually, the truth comes out and becomes the final hammer strike that destroys the foundation of her family. 

Soon Frances is a sex offender being sent to jail. She comes out the other side having to deal with a number of challenges, including therapy, community service and trying to find a sense of purpose.

There’s a wonderful lack of emotionality to Frances.  She’s young, beautiful and self-aware but struggles to understand why any of it matters. Her face is constantly stuck in a stoic frown that shows the world her indifference. The world feels more tolerated than inhabited. Even when the gradually more depressing aspects of her existence are revealed, they feel like another inconvenience.

Byington employs a lo-fi approach to both how the movie is filmed and the performances of his cast. There are not any big emotional outbursts or melodramatic moments; every scene is played with a deadpan delivery that makes everything feel wonderfully unforced. 

Katey Wheless does a great job portraying this patently unlikable protagonist in a way that is both engrossing and amusing.  The character is so wonderfully apathetic about everything that her wholesale dismissal of her rapidly disintegrating existence feels more amusing as the story unfolds. Nick Offerman (“Parks and Rec”) provides narration, commentary and the occasional red herring, which adds to the strange storybook feel of the movie.

In a more serious film, I might have struggled with the random entry and exit points of this story. The characters that populate this heightened reality are all wonderfully sleight. Whether it be Frances’ perpetually disappointed mother, consistently disappointing husband, or the group therapist that helps give her a healthy dose of perspective, everyone has a purpose and vanishes as the narrator informs the audience this is the last time they’ll be seeing this particular supporting character.

I enjoyed “Frances Ferguson,” thanks to Wheless’s dark charisma and Byington’s cinematic world view. It presents us with something that feels both absurd and weirdly grounded. Byington strips away the melodrama and pretension to deliver an awkward, amusing and ultimately entertaining pop-up book version of a character study.

Frances Ferguson
November 15, 7:45 p.m.
November 17, 4:30 p.m.
Thalian Hall, 301 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $15 •

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