Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Steve Buscemi, J. Smith-Cameron
Written by: Christina Choe
Directed by: Christina Choe
Nancy (2018) is a psychological drama that examines the realities and illusions of human connection. Nancy Freeman, played by Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Mandy), is a thirty-something aspiring writer living with her mother, who is dying of Parkinson’s disease. From her mother’s constant anger to Nancy’s soul-sucking temp job, her current situation is far from ideal. The one bit of hope that gets her through her days is the possibility of being published in a literary magazine—although her glovebox fills with more and more rejection letters, the anticipation is energizing.
There are also several other personality strands that emerge early on to draw us into Nancy’s character. Supposedly, she lost a child at some point in her life. She uses a blog to connect with other people whose children have died. I say connect, but Nancy takes this to the extreme—willing to weave intricate, false narratives for what she believes to be the good of others. Is she a con artist with good intentions? Is she a dangerous person? Do we admire her? Do we fear her? It’s impossible to answer in any sort of definitive way to these questions. That is precisely what makes it a fantastic film. Besides, Nancy is likable, with her blunt bangs and vintage fur coat; she’s cool in that hipster-without-trying-to-be-hipster way, so you end up rooting for her, even when you’re not sure why.
As the film progresses, the plot grows more complex when a news segment features a couple whose daughter was kidnapped thirty years ago. Nancy, drawn to their emotional plea and conflicted over her own feelings of never fitting in, begins to wonder if she is the long-lost daughter of Leo, played by Steve Buscemi (The Big Lebowski, The Sopranos, Ghost World), and Ellen, played by J. Smith-Cameron (You Can Count on Me, Margaret, Man on a Ledge).
There are eerie similarities between Nancy and the missing girl, which are further compounded when she visits Leo and Ellen’s idyllic country home, full of food and wine and warm evenings spent sitting together reading and dancing. Leo, a psychologist, is more skeptical than Ellen, a professor of comparative literature who has found a kindred literary spirit in Nancy. Just what is real though, and what is simply a wishful fantasy? As the three distraught figures come together, emotion and reason battle for the upper hand. The ending leaves the viewer unsettled, with just the right amount of lingering curiosity.
Riseborough does a terrific job of playing the character of Nancy. Her face, often devoid of any emotional expression at all, gives her this haunting alien-like quality—one that makes you all too eager to forgive her for playing with people’s emotions. Her actions seem to be motivated by good will and curiosity rather than a desire for manipulation and control. But we don’t really know her, so again, perhaps it is all just a grand illusion or game. Buscemi and Cameron-Smith are equally compelling in their roles. As a psychologist, Buscemi tries his best to remain objective, approaching the situation from a clinical perspective. Cameron-Smith, the romantic, embodies the other half of the equation: a desperate desire for her daughter, regardless of DNA.
Aesthetically, Nancy maintains a dark, moody atmosphere, set in a small American town that could be anywhere really. One of the most brilliant parts of the film is the absence of music. Occasionally, music, quiet and eerie, is used to build the tension at certain moments. For the most part, there is an enveloping silence that leaves plenty of space for the viewer to enter into this beautiful psychodrama about intimacy and trust.
Nancy was one of several featured films being shown at the fourth Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, which runs from January 31, 2019, to February 3. The festival exists to showcase horror cinema created by women, like Christina Choe (I am John Wayne, Welcome to the DPRK, Nancy). Check out the full program for the festival here.