'Frances Ferguson': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Carmen Hilbert
An acquired-taste filmmaker narrows his potential audience further.

Fringe-dwelling filmmaker Bob Byington looks at a teacher-student sex scandal from the felon's POV.

Austin's Bob Byington is one definition of the "not for everybody" auteur, making shoestring-budget films characterized by highly mannered acting, parchment-dry wit and points of view that might widely be seen as antisocial. It's a wonder he's still making films, after a string of smart and funny outings (including Somebody Up There Likes Me and Seven Chinese Brothers) that appear to have gone nowhere after their festival runs. Perhaps he's being helped by longtime collaborator Nick Offerman, an executive producer on (and narrator of) his latest offering.

In Frances Ferguson, Byington seemingly dares viewers to like him, telling the story of a substitute teacher (newcomer Kaley Wheless) who sleeps with a student while offering little if any condemnation of the act. The pic isn't without a moral compass, but it sees no need to assist viewers eager to sit in judgment. Instead, it asks, in Byington's characteristically laconic way, what it's like to be so bored with your life you'll willingly blow the whole thing up.

Wheless' Frances has been married to Nick (Keith Poulson) for three years. At the start, it seemed like the best thing she'd ever done; now, with a child in tow and Nick given to masturbating in his car before coming in from work, it seems like the worst.

Long crossfades, dead air and soulless 8-bit soundtrack music emphasizes Fran's anhedonia, while Wheless' cold gaze suggests, if not complete apathy, then the kind of blankness that pushes many people toward sensation-seeking self harm. One day, Frances is babysitting a high-school biology class, showing a film about natural selection, when nature draws her to one of the fittest boys in the room. She barely even flirts with Jake (Jake French) before setting a rendezvous at which she'll invite him to meet her at a motel.

"We weren't there when Fran got arrested," says Offerman's narrator, who in earlier scenes has already been comically non-omniscient. (At one point, he's describing a character's lameness and admits, "I mean, I may need a thesaurus to go on.") After she has been caught and sentenced for her crime, Frances herself makes a couple of appearances on the voiceover track — not to steer the movie but to hint, with more to come later, that there's an awareness of her faults beneath her armor of sarcastic (and sometimes very funny) asides.

As Scott King's script whisks Frances through crime and punishment to government-mandated rehabilitation, it strips away narrative distractions surgically. "This is the last time we see Nick," the narrator says, in one of many moments that give us permission to stop thinking about somebody. But a character who would seem ripe for Fran's dismissal lasts longer than expected: a slightly square counselor (David Krumholtz) leading her group therapy sessions, to whom she opens up a bit.

In a film that signals its non-naturalism at every turn, we can hardly fault Frances Ferguson for showing little insight into its namesake's psyche. (It's almost the polar opposite, say, of Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken's recent teacher/student film An Affair.) At most, it has Frances refer to the way people make assumptions based on her looks. Not said is how different things would be in a film about a Frank Ferguson who slept with an underage Jane. A nonjudgmental film about that would not fly with moviegoers in 2019. This one may not fly, either, but it's another chapter in an oeuvre that is so peculiar some of us will root for it to keep going.

Cast: Kaley Wheless, Nick Offerman, Keith Poulson, David Krumholtz, Martin Starr, Jennifer Prediger, Bill Wise, John Gatins, Dante Harper, Megan Jerabek
Director: Bob Byington
Screenwriter: Scott King
Producer: Zefrey Throwell
Executive producers: Chris McKenna, Nick Offerman, Dickson McGuire
Director of photography: Carmen Hilbert
Production designer: Caitlin Ward
Costume designer: Olivia Mori
Editors: Susan LaMarca, Kris Boustedt
Composers: Chris Baio, Burgess Meredith
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)

74 minutes