'Frances Ferguson' film review: Bone-dry comedy explores the prison of marriage
Normally, the story of a character who commits a crime and has to re-enter society is some version of a redemption arc. At the very least, the film usually carries some social commentary on either criminals or crime - but this is no such story. If anything, the constant of the dark comedy "Frances Ferguson" (screening during the 45th Seattle International Film Festival) is not how reticent or introspective Frances becomes throughout her journey - rather, she is constantly put off with the apparent "hassle" of prison and parole.
In short: Midwest substitute teacher Frances (Katey Wheless) is discontented with her life, her husband and her career decides just upend her life with a series of increasingly poor decisions. Narrated by Nick Offerman and also stars David Krumholtz and Martin Starr.
Somewhat like the fable of the frog being slowly boiled alive, Frances doesn't make one massive, life-changing decision that ruins her life - she makes a series of small but intentional choices. The first act lives in the spaces between these moments of her self-awareness that gives away to her indifference.
On paper, the protagonist is contemptible - and there's no question about Frances' guilt. If anything, she's pretty unrepentant about what she would admit as a mild transgression at worst ... but what society has perceived as despicable. The key to this film is Wheless' pitch-perfect performance in this dark comedy about criminal who is treated as a criminal but who doesn't genuinely believe she has committed a crime at all. Frances quietly but obviously seethes with an outright resentment with just about every facet of her life - from her disappointing husband to her strained relationship with her mother. Wheless' mastery of comic timing keeps Frances somehow a flawed but compelling protagonist worth rooting for. In some warped way, Frances is an unapologetic criminal -- as well as a disturbingly relatable everyday antihero failed by society and everyone around her.
Writer-director Bob Bylington's films are defined by their offbeat humor and absurd plot. Some could have a problem with the offbeat and quirky tone "Ferguson" takes with a patently predatory crime. The film never absolves Frances - even if she might think the court overreacted, she still has to pay her debt to society. Very few can relate to Frances' crimes - however, her story is rooted in her loveless relationships and her willful disregard of everything just to feel alive -- even if she is elementally rude and her crime was disgusting.
Final verdict: Offerman's uber dry narration and Wheless' locked in lead performance keep this ridiculous character study of a disaffected woman hilarious and quirky.
"Frances Ferguson" screens during SIFF 2019. This comedy is unrated and has a running time of 74 minutes.