Frances Ferguson takes place in a town in Nebraska. As the film’s narrator (Nick Offerman) explains it, it’s a town where everyone knows everyone else. It’s a town where your mechanic knows your bartender and no one can really keep anything a secret for too long. For instance, it’s the type of town where there’s no way that a substitute teacher in her mid-20s is going to be able to get away with having an affair with a 16 year-old student.
The teacher in question is named Frances Ferguson (Kaley Wheeless). Frances wanders through her days in an apathetic haze. When she steps outside of her house, she sees her useless husband (Keith Poulson) masturbating in the car. When she spends time with her mother (Jennifer Prediger), she is criticized for every little thing. On the rare days when she gets called to teach, the students look down on her and Frances thinks about how little she knows about any of the subjects on which she’s giving instruction. Frances goes through her day holding back her emotions. She only screams on the inside and, when she does, only she and the viewing audience can hear.
Things start to look up when Frances teaches a biology class and notices a handsome but vacuous student named Jake (Jake French). When she finds out that Jake has been given detention, Frances volunteers to supervise him. When Frances flirts with him and the scene cuts way, the narrator asks us, “Was this a crime?”
(Yes, it was.)
Frances and Jake have a short-lived affair, though it doesn’t seem to be particularly passionate. If anything, Jake seems to be even more blase about it than Frances. Wearing her old cheerleader uniform, Frances meets Jake in a laundromat. “I’d never date a cheerleader,” Jake tells her. We, the viewers, notice that there are other people in the laundromat. Does Frances want to get caught?
Get caught, she does. “This is the last time we see Jake,” the narrators tells us as Jake fades away. Frances, meanwhile, sits in court. Her mother comes to the trial and tells her that her clothes make her look fat. Frances is convicted and sent to prison. Her mom brings her a chocolate cupcake for her birthday. Frances announces that she’s allergic to chocolate before taking a big bite and then pretending to die. “Get off that dirty floor!” her mother orders her.
You may getting the impression that Frances Ferguson is a strange film and I supposed it is. It’s a comedy but it’s an extremely deadpan comedy, with most of the humor coming from Frances’s seeming apathy to ever single thing that happens to her. It’s not that Frances doesn’t have feelings or emotions. We hear her inner scream enough times to know that she’s not as apathetic as she seems. It’s just that Frances is so consumed with small town ennui that she realizes it’s pointless to react one way or the other. Life is what it is and it continues regardless of how annoying it may all be. Whether she screams on the inside or on the outside, she’ll still have to wake up every morning in the same situation. One day, Frances Ferguson was a teacher. The next day, she was a prisoner. And the day after that, she was on parole and a minor celebrity. (“You’re that teacher!” is a phrase that she continually hears.) What happens, happens.
Here’s the thing …. though it may not sound like it from my description of the plot, Frances Ferguson is an incredibly funny film. A lot of that is due to Nick Offerman’s performance as the snarky narrator. (The narrator has a tendency to wander off topic.) A lot of that has to do with the performance of Kaley Wheeless, who perfectly communicates Frances’s suppressed irritation. Over the course of the film, Frances has to deal with a lot of people who, if not for her one mistake, she would have otherwise never had to deal with. Some of them get on her nerves and some of them — well, two of them — provide her with some comfort. I loved David Krumholtz’s performance as a beleagured but optimistic group leader. Martin Starr also gets a nice bit at the end, though it would be too much of spoiler to say anything else about his role. I also enjoyed the performances of Jack Marshall and Yoko Lawing, as the two detectives who investigate the charges against Frances and who explain that, because of TV cop shows, they can no longer get away with playing good cop/bad cop.
Frances Ferguson is good film. It’s also a short one, clocking in at just 74 minutes. To be honest, it’s the perfect running time for the story that this film tells. We follow Frances’s story for just as long as we need to. Frances Ferguson is on Prime so check it out.