France Ferguson is a short and caustic film about a small-town woman who is discontent with her marriage and her life. The film is dryly narrated by Nick Offerman, and watching it feels like reading a wonderful little novella. It’s almost perfect. Except for the fact that Frances Ferguson is also, as director/co-writer Bob Byington puts it, “a comedy about a teacher who has sex with one of her students.” If that sounds like a difficult line to walk, well, yeah.
The original idea behind the film was to focus on a woman trapped in and bored by her life, something that would give star and co-writer Kaley Wheless a chance to shine. After coming across yet another story of a teacher who sleeps with a student, the pair decided that this behavior would be how Wheless’ Ferguson would manifest her suburban discontent.
And damn it, I wish they hadn’t made that decision. Because, again, it’s an otherwise almost perfect movie. Wheless is absolutely fantastic in the title role, managing to bounce back and forth between her millennial-ennui and being almost charming in finding what little joys she can in her life. Except… And Byington’s direction is shockingly confident and self-assured, presenting this small town Nebraska world that you want to watch forever. Except… And Offerman’s narration is everything you would hope it is, and he chews up moments like getting to describe Ferguson’s husband: “a miscreant, a rapscallion, a scallywag … I may need a thesaurus to go on.” Except…
Except for the fact that Frances is fundamentally repugnant and morally bankrupt, because she fucks a student. The fact that we don’t actually see the act, the fact that she’s relatively close in age to the high school boy, the fact that she was a substitute teacher so there wasn’t any meaningful emotional connection between her and the student, the fact that she goes to jail and purportedly pays a price for her crime … none of these really matter. Because although Frances does learn how to begin growing out of her malaise, this doesn’t come from any meaningful exploration of what she’s done or why she’s done it (aside from helpful therapy nuggets like the “things we do are substitutions and we don’t even know what for”).
As a unique comedy, Frances Ferguson succeeds. As a showcase for Wheless’ performance, Offerman’s narration, and a wonderful (as usual) turn by David Krumholtz, this film succeeds. But as I sit here a week removed from the movie, I still can’t separate what I dug about this movie from that one thing. I really do hope this film gets bought so folks can see it and judge for themselves. I suspect some won’t be interested in even trying to watch a comedy that purports to walk that line, and that’s fair. And I suspect others will be able to tune out this fundamental problem and simply enjoy this dry novella of a film for what it is and wants to be. And I think that’s ok too.
In fact, it’s true that I can’t stop thinking about this misstep, a thing that didn’t even seem necessary to tell the story they wanted to tell. And yet. Despite my unsettled discomfort with this issue, and despite knowing better and wanting more from the film and myself … I still kind of love this movie.
Frances Ferguson had its world premiere at South by Southwest 2019.
Header Image Source: Official SXSW Image