SXSW 2019: FRANCES FERGUSON Needs to Grow Up

The latest from Bob Byington might be his best

Director Bob Byington has always had a thing for bad boys. Well, maybe not bad, but likably unlikable, or just a step out of sync with societal expectations. In his newest feature, Frances Ferguson, he turns his eye toward a female character of this ilk, and the results are memorable.

Byington, an Austin stalwart, moved production north. Far north. Frances Ferguson is set in North Platte, Nebraska, a boring town with a bored substitute teacher. Frances (newcomer Kaley Wheless) might spend her days in the local high school, but she spends her nights at home with a useless husband (though good father) played by Byington regular Keith Poulson, and her young daughter, Parfait.

Things go sideways when Fran decides to pursue a student from the school and ends up becoming another in a line of teachers who crossed the line. Nothing gratuitous is shown, and she seems to be doing it out of apathy more than lust.

Still, the consequences are severe. Jail, divorce, probation. Most of the film lives in the place after her misdeeds as a young woman with snark to spare, who has to come to grips with her place in the world as a registered sex offender.

Speaking of, Byington’s 2008 movie RSO mined similar territory, but with wildly different leads. While the young man in that movie went through life dodging uncomfortable moments with humor, Frances is much more closed off, though she has her moments of skewering fools.

The supporting cast holds their own in this eponymous film. Poulson as the husband is perfectly perplexed by his wife’s antipathy and stupidity. Bill Wise is the tough-but-kind probation officer we all wish we could have. Jennifer Prediger’s mother figure can’t be bothered with her child, explaining lots of what’s going on with Frances.

The most enjoyable scenes of the movie happen in group therapy. David Krumholtz absolutely kills as the only person in the room who understands just how screwed up in the group is, and his hyper-reserved demeanor ratchets up the dry humor. Local Megan Jerabek is picture perfect as a 15-year-old who just can’t even. (After enjoying this and Andrew Bujalski’s therapist in RSO, Byington’s next movie should just be two solid hours of counseling. It’s that good.)

With a story by Wheless and Byington and narration by Nick Offerman, Frances Ferguson explores a long road from dysfunction to acceptance and maybe even redemption. It has all of the trademark aesthetics and snappy dialogue of a typical Byington feature but with a new, deeper dive into the main character’s motivations and persona. The end result is film that delivers comedy, conflict, and pathos in just the right proportion.

Photo by Rod Machen
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