Finding Frances

One of the special things about True/False is the way the festival plays around with the notion of non-fiction films. Though ostensibly dedicated to the documentary form, True/False loves to program films that blur the lines. My first year here, I caught a special screening of Boyhood just after its Sundance premier. I’ve seen plenty of other films since that are best described as fictional with elements of reality thrust in, or vice versa. This year, I caught a great example of this genre bending, Nathan Fielder’s Finding Frances.

Fielder is best known as the star of the Comedy Central show Nathan for You, where he helps struggling small businesses turn things around, with plenty of absurdist humor thrown in. Indeed, Finding Frances represents a cinematic reworking of the two-part series finale of that show (another blurred line, that separating television from film). I’ve never seen the show, but watching Finding Frances has convinced me to seek it out. Fielder traffics in the awkward and the uncertain, but he manages simultaneously to bring a richness of feeling to his work. Finding Frances documents his attempt to help a former guest on his show, a Bill Gates impersonator named Bill Heath, find the girl he left behind fifty years before. They embark on a buddy road comedy of sorts, but Heath proves just as elusive as the woman he chases.

It’s hard to know what is real and what is fake in the film. Many scenes are clearly staged, especially the comic ones. There’s a hilarious thread where Fielder employs the services of an aging expert to produce a poster with a picture of what Frances might look like in the present. Cornelius, the aging expert, is clearly performing an over the top character, but that doesn’t take away from the humor of the scene. Other scenes seem more real, like the 57th class reunion Fielder plans at Frances’ high school, so Bill can blend in and try to get information from her former classmates.

This formal ambiguity dovetails nicely with the character of Bill, who remains mysterious throughout. At the beginning, he comes across as a touching old man, isolated and full of regrets about the one that got away. As the film progresses, though, he becomes more complicated – it’s clear that he has unresolved issues, and is possessive, demanding, and difficult to get along with. But Fielder perseveres, and in the process the film offers a wistful consideration of old age, loneliness, and the possibility of friendship. Fielder finds himself moving from a place of pity to one of understanding towards Bill. He also finds his own loneliness displayed, as he pursues an emotional attachment to a hired escort (originally procured as date practice for Bill), who makes him feel valued and heard. Again, it’s not clear how much is real or fake, but the emotions it explores ring true.

I’ve focused on the bittersweet aspects of the film, but I don’t want to undersell just how funny Finding Frances is. Fielder loves to linger on conversations just a little too long, to see what awkwardness he can mine. He also sets up cunning set pieces, the best of which involves him posing, alongside Bill, as the producer of a sequel to the Matthew McConaughey film Mud, called Mud 2: Never Clean. That people buy into this ridiculous premise is a testament to Fielder’s ability to believe himself into projects, a skill on full display in Finding Frances.