The character of Frances Ferguson seems quite timely these days. She’s not quite a Karen of the pandemic — the epitome of the entitled, self-centered person. But she certainly doesn’t give a crap about what anyone thinks. And she has a scowl that would make Grumpy Cat envious.
So maybe that’s why Frances (Kaley Wheless) is the central character of Austin director Bob Byington’s latest, “Frances Ferguson,” which had its premiere at the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival.
It’s a quirky comedy that explores a touchy topic — a good-looking young woman who’s bored with her life, her new baby and her relatively new husband, and decides to seduce a good-looking young student at the school where she works as a substitute teacher.
All of this takes place in North Platte, Neb. — a small town where everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. And Fran’s indiscretion is soon public knowledge, and she’s sent to jail. But this is only the early part of the film, with most of it eventually focusing on Fran’s rehab and group therapy sessions involving parole requirements.
Fran is not a willing participant in her redemption. And you start to think about gender norms and the reactions of men who see a woman as having her own sexual agency, without excuses. It’s rather clear that Fran knows that Jake, the boy she seduced, was no stranger to teen sex. That doesn’t make Fran’s actions right. But as we said earlier, she just doesn’t care. And that’s the source of much of the film’s dry wit.
As the script by Scott King unfolds, various people in Fran’s life begin to disappear from the screen, not in an ominous way, but because they are of no more use to her story.
Nick Offerman, who serves as kind of voiceover narrator for much of the film, lets us know when we can dispense with caring about the multitude of ugly people in Fran’s life, including her mother, played by Jennifer Prediger, and her husband Nick (Keith Poulson). Offerman, who starred in Byington’s 2012 feature “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” intones to his presumed audience, “This is the last time we will see …. (whomever).” And the list keeps getting longer.
The best scenes involve the group therapy sessions and parole interactions, led by a series of rather inept authority figures trying to corral disruptive addicts and assorted felons. Frances is more than able to hold her own, of course, but it’s fascinating to watch her navigate the sexism and judgments that she faces in these settings.
As Frances, Wheless is a powerhouse, with withering looks and acerbic delivery of dialogue. But the director/screenwriter team deserves plenty of credit, too, guiding this comedy over uneven terrain. If it’s all about tone, then “Frances Ferguson” nails it.
“Frances Ferguson” is available on demand at the Drafthouse website, ondemand.drafthouse.com/film/frances-ferguson.