Directed by Christina Choe (2018)
Starring Andrea Riseborough, Steve Buscemi, Ann Dowd
Running time 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA rating: Not rated
by Francis Friel, The Projectionist
Andrea Riseborough needs to be in more movies. She’s been a supporting player for so long that it’s become hard to follow her career and, admittedly, I only really noticed her for her own presence in Birdman. I’d seen her before but couldn’t get my own sense of what she was up to, but that movie sort of sealed it for me. So I’m glad people are out there giving her starring roles. I only wish Nancy was a movie more people would see.
It’s one of those movies that plays so head-on with its tropes that you want to predict where it’s all going to end. Which sort of works, because it does end up exactly where you think it will, but only after feeding you every bit of (naturalistic) misdirection necessary to also send you down the path of second-guessing yourself. When a character shows up early on and exposes one of Nancy’s lies you think, “Oh, that character will somehow come back and expose her again,” or be somehow tied to the rest of the story and the bigger lie that drives the story will be played out and we’ll watch it all crash down around her. But then…something else happens entirely. You don’t get that easy out, and maybe that other character was representing something else altogether, and maybe Nancy’s not even lying this time and you’re projecting what little you know of her onto the story. And fine, that’s how movies work, but it’s a relief to watch a filmmaker take command of their material and show you every step of the way how this will all play out while still leaving room to look around all the narrative corners and anticipate the dozen other ways this’ll all go down.
And like I said, it all works because of Riseborough. She plays the entire film on her barely expressive face, fully inhabiting the depressed resignation you see on people with severe anxiety, wanting to connect and be present but giving absolutely nothing away. It’s a smart choice because she has to be completely inscrutable to those around her so they can question her motives even when we know (or suspect) that she’s probably being sincere. It’s a portrayal of a flawed person who isn’t trying to hurt other people through her actions but, nonetheless, can’t help but insinuate herself into the lives of those people who are also in pain because she thinks it’s the right thing to do. She wants to learn about herself and she uses the opportunity to maybe create some sort of alternate reality with other wounded people where they can alternately wallow in their shared pain and possibly reach some catharsis together.
As to the plot, it’s pretty straightforward and leaves exactly the right amount of space for all the players to dig around and figure out the insulated world they’re all inhabiting. Nancy lives at home with her mother (Ann Dowd, who is just fucking tearing the world down right now by appearing in so many things at the same time and killing in every single one of them). At night she sits on message boards for parents who’ve lost their children, hoping to connect and relive her own past traumas by pretending to be pregnant and sharing her own experiences (possibly lies? - we’re never really sure). But when she’s found out by pure dumb circumstance and that lie collapses, she needs something new to occupy her time. That’s when she sees the news story of the family who lost their daughter to kidnapping decades earlier. They release a photo of what their adult daughter would look like today, and it bears a striking resemblance to Nancy. So she sets out to meet the parents she never knew she had.
That’s where it gets really hairy, really fast. From the moment they meet, things are weird between the two sides. Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron, as the couple searching for their daughter, are immediately brought to life by just how opposed their reactions are to meeting Nancy. Leo (Buscemi) is reluctant to buy into all this too quickly, for reasons both obvious (wouldn’t you be a little wary of someone just coming out of the woodwork after all these years?) and very specific. Ellen (Smith-Cameron) is all smiles and breakfasts and coffee and warm blankets. She can’t wait to meet Nancy. She wants it all to be real. She wants to have her daughter back. She wants to relive that long-lost feeling of family that has clearly disappeared from their house after decades of looping through the stages of grief along with her husband. And she just wants it all to be put right again.
It’s in the quieter moments where the characters are paired off to get to know each other that we get the real meaning here. That connection is always work. It’s not enough that you’re born into a family and have everything ready-made for you. Certainly, when it's a family that's been splintered for as long as this one has been, there can’t help but be some growing pains along the way. But Leo is still hopeful. He makes concessions to this new person in his life, even setting aside his cat allergy to allow Nancy’s pet to stay in the house. Eventually, he’s the one getting up early to make breakfast and plan things to do around town. There are even hints along the way as to where everyone’s head is at as the story progresses, depending on whether Leo and Ellen refer to their daughter by her birth name or as “you” when addressing Nancy. But when it’s revealed that he’s not just holding back out of fear, but that he’s got real-world reasons for acting the way he does, we get the deeper feeling behind just how shredded this couple has become after a lifetime devoted to a cause they both know might never pay off for them.
In the end, it comes down on the right note, bringing everything together and answering the question as to whether or not Nancy is indeed who they all want her to be. But that answer doesn’t supplant their grief. Nancy isn’t going to stop being depressed. Yes, they all get the closure they were hoping for, but to what end? After the credits roll, we still don’t know what happens the next day, or the next hour, after the answer is given. It’s a life-changing moment not because Nancy is or isn’t their daughter, but because they all went through something together and came out the other side. Did they learn anything new from all this? Will that answer be satisfying? They will remain strangers whether the answer was yes or no. But understanding that love is earned and not something to be used against someone else or for your own cathartic personal gain is - as in real life, sadly - the only lesson any of them can take away from all this.
Director Choe has made a movie that I wish was going to find a bigger audience than it will, if for no other reason than by economic necessity. It’s not a Superjawn, there’s no time travel or virtual reality worlds to conquer, there’s no sequel potential and it’s not based on a Stephen King story. But I recommend you all go see it anyway. Then buy or rent it when the time comes. This is exactly the type of stuff we should all be championing, and a story as painful and human as we’re likely to get this summer. And I didn’t even mention the cool little cinematic trick the film plays about a third of the way through, visually signalling that Nancy has changed and entered into her new life before we see it play out in the story itself. So Choe is showing us something cool here. Check it out to make sure she gets to do it again.