Frances Ferguson doesn’t seem to think she did anything all that bad. After all, she only cheated on her husband of three years because it was a dead end relationship.
Her lover? A 16-year-old high school student. Yikes.
It didn’t take long for 25-year-old Ferguson, played by Kaley Wheless in her first feature film, to lose her post as a substitute teacher and end up in the clink, leaving her loser husband to care for their young daughter Parfait.
Throughout her arrest, trial and incarceration, Ferguson’s demeanor never changes — she is totally deadpan, void of almost any emotion or feeling of guilt. Instead, Ferguson seems rather bored in jail and then goes through the motions of mandated therapy and community service upon her release, with little sign of any character development in sight for a majority of the film.
Directed by Bob Byington, “Frances Ferguson” takes us through Ferguson’s journey to navigate life in the small town of North Platte, Nebraska as a registered sex offender where she’s become widely regarded as “the woman who slept with a student.”
“I judged her in the beginning. I was like ‘I don’t think she’s going to be able to redeem herself,’” said Wheless in a Q&A session following the screening on the final day of the Montclair Film Festival at Bow Tie Clairidge Cinemas. “Then we talked about how sometimes the biggest journey is making someone finally accept responsibility, or see that they have a problem or turn inward at all.”
“Frances Ferguson” is an offbeat film with tonal cues akin to Amazon Prime’s Fleabag and Barbara Loden’s “Wanda,” says Wheless. It’s dry humor and sarcasm, inspired by Byington’s persona, is similar to that found in CBC’s Schitt’s Creek and uses Nick Offerman, known for his role as Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation as the perfect deadpan narrator of Ferguson’s story.
“Nick is just wonderful, he does his normal magic with anyone you give him,” Wheless said.
One of the most entertaining scenes comes during Ferguson’s mandated group therapy, led by a pretty average counselor played by David Krumholtz. Ferguson is asked to be an active participator, but finds herself being judged harshly by her peers. The collection of characters in group therapy yield hilarious responses from Krumholtz’s character as he struggles to run a group therapy session.
“We just let [Krumholtz] go. He’s an amazing performer, he’s a great improvisational actor, he’s hilarious, he’s really fun and that energy he really brought just dominated, we just kind of built those scenes around [him],” Wheless said. Several of the originally-scripted scenes that Krumholtz improvised in did actually end up making it into the film.
While Ferguson’s character development is painstakingly slow, her transition back into normal life is funny and curious and ultimately leaves the viewer at a crossroads of whether or not it’s OK to empathize with a registered sex offender.
“We want you to feel that and maybe feel uncomfortable about it,” Wheless said.
“I think the biggest step sometimes is saying, ‘oh, there’s something wrong and I have something to do with it.’”