Nancy is a character study but it has the texture of a psychological thriller.
Nancy (Andrea Riseborough), the title character of Christina Choe’s enthralling debut film, is an aspiring writer and a prolific liar. Utilizing fiction, both on the page and in her own life, provides a temporary escape from what appears to be a bleak existence in her dreary Northeastern town, where she looks after her mean-spirited, sickly mother (Ann Dowd) and works in a dentist’s office. On her kitchen counter are piles of rejection letters from The Paris Review and other notable literary magazines; she finds a more captive audience online, where she authors a pseudonymous blog full of fictional posts and interacts with commenters who assume the writing is fact-based.
Choe doesn’t bother making Nancy an unreliable narrator. We witness her compulsive dishonesty up front when she tells coworkers about her recent vacation to North Korea, which she backs up with a few Photoshopped images of her hanging out in Pyongyang. Instead, the director obscures Nancy’s motivations. It isn’t exactly clear what she gets from catfishing one of her online readers (John Leguizamo), but her nearly sadistic commitment to the lie might suggest a desire to compensate for the lack of power and agency in her own life. Her approach seems pained, not manipulative. It’s like she has no recourse.
Looking bug-eyed and stringy beneath a mop of frizzy hair, the exceedingly skilled Riseborough nails this difficult and often alienating character by exuding a total lack of self-awareness. You get the sense that Nancy doesn’t fully understand why she does what she does, and Riseborough’s acting doesn’t betray any sort of Machiavellian cunning. Nancy’s fabrications stem from a lack of imagination rather than an abundance, and the desperation of it all suggests the naïve hope that one of her lies might somehow lead to a richer, more rewarding life. (It’s also a source for some subversive dark comedy—come on, North Korea? Really?)
And yet we develop sympathy for Nancy, even as we’re repelled and eventually repulsed by some of her actions. Working alongside cinematographer Zoe White, Choe puts Nancy’s emotional desolation into visual terms. She sucks all the life out the character’s surroundings by creating a color palette that borders on monochrome, and the first third of the movie is filmed in a boxy non-anamorphic ratio, imparting a constrictive feeling that mirrors the lack of freedom Nancy feels. After Nancy’s mother suffers a deadly stroke, creating a clearer path toward a more fulfilling life, the image literally opens up to a more freeing 8
The story takes a turn when Nancy sees a TV news story about an aging husband and wife (Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) and their daughter, Brooke, who’s been missing for 30 years. When Nancy sees a composite photo of what Brooke would look like today, the resemblance between them is striking enough for her to pick up the phone and contact the parents. The setup may feel a tad convenient and contrived, but it also conveys a deep sadness in the way hurt people tend to seek solace in the most immediate places—the perverse twist here, of course, is that Nancy finds hers in a grieving couple on the local news. Within hours of calling, she’s at their dining table and accepting an offer to spend the night. As one overnight stay turns into multiple, Nancy and the couple, both searching for the same thing but approaching it from disparate angles, form an odd emotional triumvirate, the bedrock of which is Nancy’s deliberate deception.
Needless to say, things get rocky. Nancy is a character study, but it has the texture of a psychological thriller, and the second and third acts take place almost primarily in the husband and wife’s secluded countryside property, where the film takes on the quality of black box theater. Choe’s camera lingers on each actor’s face, catching subtle gestures and facial tics. Simultaneously, she keeps certain questions obscured and unanswered, creating a quietly menacing tone that gives potentially heartwarming scenes, like when the husband shoots Nancy’s portrait in his photography studio, a steady feeling of disquiet. The plot hinges on the DNA test that will prove if Nancy is actually Brooke, but the film is ultimately more concerned with whether or not these characters will finally receive the kind of love they’ve needed for decades, while at the same time asking us why we’d begrudge their impulse to take it.