Movie Review: Frances Ferguson (2019)
“Frances Ferguson” is the type of movie that gets buzz during a film festival but none afterwards.
It’s a deadpan indie comedy about a woman in a dead-end town with an obvious character defect, and the point of the movie eventually becomes overcoming that defect. But it’s not funny enough or clever enough; and the defect is part of the reason for the buzz: She’s deadpan, unengaged, unfeeling. For a certain type of moviegoer, deadpan is almost a political/sociological stance—a proper response to a corrupt world—but to me it’s the sad, adolescent cousin of cool. I want to say: Move on; grow up.
Writer-director Bob Byington seems destined to make these kinds of things: people who aren’t engaging with the world realizing maybe they should engage with the world. Cf., “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and “7 Chinese Bros.”
Frances (Kaley Wheless) lives in Point Bluff, Nebraska with a loser husband, Nick (Byington staple Keith Poulson, hair perpetually dangling over one eye), and a 4-year old daughter, Parfait, with a learning disability. She and Nick are uncommunicative. The first time we see him, he’s sitting in their car, parked on a side street, masturbating. It lets us know they’re no longer having sex, etc., but to me it raises this point: Who the hell does this? Is there no locked bathroom? No closet he can use?
Do we ever find out his job, by the way? His career? Anything other than this sad fact? She, anyway, is a substitute teacher at the local high school. We see her nervous before taking over a French class, trying to remember what little French she knows, before being informed that it’s actually a biology class. “Merde,” she mutters. Good bit.
It’s in this biology class that she first contemplates the act that propels the rest of the movie—having sex with a hunky student, Jake (Jake French). Because she’s bored? Self-destructive? Because it’s a biology class? She’s certainly no pro at having an affair. Here’s where she tells her student to meet her in this small town where everyone knows everyone:
- at a grocery store, while she’s shopping with her husband
- at a laundromat, where she wears her old cheerleading outfit
- at a motel
That’s where she’s busted. Is this what she wanted? She’s not saying and neither is the narrator, Nick Offerman, master of the deadpan delivery. She’s sentenced to prison, divorces her husband via online dispute resolution, is paroled, goes through therapy, meets good, bad and ugly people, and begins, maybe, to come out of her shell. That’s the movie. It ends arbitrarily—during a date with Martin Starr, Gilfoyle from “Silicon Valley.” (Yes, this thing is like a deadpan Hall of Fame.)
Why does she maybe begin to come out of her shell? My friend Vinny thought she realized how much her mother screwed her up, and she doesn’t want to do the same to her daughter. Except her mother doesn’t seem that horrible. Frances actually seems worse.
The last time
I saw it at the Seattle International Film Festival, and there was a Q&A afterwards with the star, Wheless, and Byington. One filmgoer asked about a recurring device in the narration: Whenever a character is about to leave the movie, Offerman tells us so: “This is the last time you’ll see Nick.” “This is the last time you’ll see Jake.”
I liked this bit a lot, and Byington talked about how it grew organically: from one character, to the others, to, finally, and why not, Frances. These are the movie’s last words: “This is the last time you’ll see Frances.”
Byington said he hoped moviegoers would feel a little sad at hearing this line; at seeing her go. Trouble was, I wasn’t. I was a bit surprised—because of the arbitrariness of the end—but sad? No. There wasn’t enough there there. The movie is called “Frances Ferguson” but I never knew Frances Ferguson; I just knew the stare and the stance.