MOVIE OF THE WEEK June 8, 2018: NANCY

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motw logo 1-35Fragile, unpredictable, and melancholy, the tone of writer/director Christina Choe’s debut feature Nancy is a lot like its main character, a lonely, rather purposeless and very sad woman who desperately needs meaning in her life. Played to perfection by Andrea Riseborough, the character of Nancy is complex, captivating, deliberately difficult to read and often hard to root for, but you can’t help getting caught up in her search for purpose and connection. Continue reading…

nancy posterAs the movie opens, Nancy is living a constricted life with her querulous, ill mother (Ann Dowd). Nancy’s approach to dealing with her disappointing circumstances is to lie about who she is and what she’s experienced. She tells co-workers at a temp job that she traveled to North Korea; she announces to people online that she had a baby who died. (Was she ever really even pregnant? Possibly, but it’s hard to know for sure.) After her mother’s unexpected death, Nancy is left even more rudderless than before.

And then she sees a news story about a couple named Ellen and Leo (J. Smith Cameron and Steve Buscemi) who are still hoping to learn the fate of their young daughter, missing for 30 years. Nancy notices her startling physical resemblance to a digitally aged photo of the long-lost girl; that, plus her lack of a birth certificate, prompts her to call Ellen and suggest that she might be their child.

A visit follows; Ellen seems eager to believe that her baby has come home, while Leo, understandably, is skeptical. As the trio awkwardly waits to hear the results of DNA testing and a PI’s investigation, they tentatively form bonds with each other. All the while, viewers are left wondering: Does Nancy really believe these are her parents, or is this another one of her lies?

There’s tension in Nancy, but it’s not really a thriller or a mystery; it’s a detailed, deliberate character study of a woman who seems to wish that she could be anyone other than who she is. Nancy isn’t a bad person, but her propensity to delude others — and herself — colors everything she does. It’s impossible to trust her, even when you understand her motivations. Of course she wants love, family, and belonging; don’t we all? — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Nikki Baughan: Andrea Riseborough gives a powerful, enigmatic performance as the titular character in Christina Choe’s poignant, well observed study of identity, love and connection in the modern world. Nancy is a slippery character from the outset; caring for her ailing mother, she interacts with the outside world via social media and presents various personalities depending on her audience. As Nancy’s obvious loneliness drives her to increasingly outlandish behaviour, we can never be sure whether she’s willingly manipulative or just desperate to find her place in a world that seems determined to reject her. An absorbing, assured and deliciously ambiguous debut from short filmmaker Choe, Nancy asks some truly compelling questions about the nature of ties that bind us.

Anne Brodie: The often glamourous English actor Andrea Riseborough disappears entirely in her role as an American woman without a “look” to rely upon. As Nancy, she is lifelike, authentic and in charge. Pared down is an understatement as Riseborough portrays a woman caring for her ungrateful, shrewish mother, played by Ann Dowd. Nancy doesn’t have much of a life outside f her relationship with her cat, Paul. A few days after her mother’s death, she sees a news story on TV about a girl who went missing decades ago, and because she bears a resemblance and is the same age, she sees the chance to change things. She contacts the parents of the missing girl to say she may be their child, and goes to them. The woman (J. Smith-Cameron) takes to her almost immediately. A private investigator hired by the dubious father (Steve Buscemi) administers DNA tests. By now the three have reached an understanding and have bonded but everything hinges on the test. Nancy is a rare thing, a barebones, good story, short on dialogue but complex and meaningful. Nothing much happens in this well-edited film, but everything does. It poses so many possibilities. Does Nancy believe she is their daughter? Is she a con artist? Is their growing connection real? Is it too good to be true? Riseborough’s Nancy is canvas on which we project our ideas, and she has a certain apparent purposeful flatness that never gives her away. So much to ponder. Christina Choe, the writer director has crafted an emotional thriller of note.

Kristen Page-Kirby: Nancy Freeman is a bad person with a sad life, so she makes up other lives where she is not a bad person. She’s not exactly running a con — she gets nothing from the people she lies to other than a chance to be someone else. Once her mother (played by Ann Dowd in a short performance that only makes us want more) dies, Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) either decides to pretend or half-believes or really believes she is the now-grown victim of a kidnapping. When she contacts the parents of the missing girl (Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron), she embarks on her most heartbreaking deception. Through a slow unfolding — to the great credit of both writer/director Christina Choe and Riseborough — it becomes clear that Nancy knows what she is doing is wrong. And she feels guilty about it, and the only way to assuage that guilt is to do it again, the same way an alcoholic copes with the shame of what happened last night by drinking to forget about it. Her actions stem from a quiet compulsion that makes a viewer feel a complex sympathy towards Nancy, even in the face of her possibly unintended cruelty.

Nell Minow: This haunting story of identity and the longing for family has achingly real performances, especially J. Smith-Cameron and John Leguizamo. The snowy setting in the final scenes is beautifully filmed and very fitting.

MaryAnn Johanson For such a salacious-sounding concept, *Nancy* is anything but. All kudos to first-time writer-director Christina Choe for taking what might have been a cheesy thriller in the hands of someone else — ahem, a man — and deftly weaving it into a gently tragic story of yearning for familial love and connection. And kudos to Andrea Riseborough for her wonderfully ambiguous performance, which never lets us come to a definite conclusion about just how sorry for her we should feel.

Marilyn Ferdinand: All the lonely people, where do they all come from? Christina Choe’s beautifully observed directorial debut, Nancy, shows us there are as many ways to loneliness as there are strategies for coping and even of making connections, but that the underlying malady can lead us into ethically questionable territory. Thirtyish Nancy Freeman (Andrea Riseborough) has spent a large chunk of her adulthood taking care of her ailing mother (Ann Dowd), with a blog and her cat Paul her only outlets for companionship. When her mother dies, she sees an opportunity to claim a new family when a couple (Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) whose child went missing 30 years previously show up on TV to publicize a scholarship they are endowing in their daughter’s name. The physical resemblance between Nancy and their daughter is enough to make them hope Nancy is their daughter, stolen from them in a mall. The delicate negotiation of emotions between the three grieving, needy people is a miracle of understatement, and the fact that Nancy comes off as a natural caregiver who wants to make people happy rather than as a selfish predator is a credit to the tour-de-force acting of the three principals, the smart, spare script by Choe, and excellent directorial choices that privilege humanity over sensationalism.

Esther Iverem: Very few movies keep your attention with characters that aren’t necessarily likeable or fully drawn. But Nancy draws us in with mystery and uncertainty and keeps us watching with interest in the human condition.

Jennifer Merin The narrative of Christina Choe’s debut feature, Nancy, centers on a lonely, rather purposeless and very sad woman who, desperate for love and a place in life, suspects she was kidnapped as a child and thinks she may have found her birth family in a still bereft couple who are searching for their missing daughter, some 30 years after their little girl’s disappearance. Nancy arrives — with her orange cat, Paul — on the doorstep of the couple’s rural home, and thus begins the heartbreaking interaction of this trio of vulnerable characters, perfectly played by Andrea Riseborough as Nancy, with J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi as her maybe/wannabe/prospective birth parents. Christina Choe’s plot and dialog create suspense regarding the authenticity of the much-wanted relationship, while her direction’s deliberately protracted pace and dark mood create space for a brooding meditation on the meaning of family and the need for acceptance and love.

Cate Marquis In Nancy, director Christina Choe spins out her intriguing yarn with careful precision, keeping us guessing about Nancy and about whether she is the long-lost daughter. She is greatly aided by the film’s strong cast, and the affecting characters they create. Despite her deceits, Riseborough’s Nancy is often a pitiful figure, maybe a delusional one, but her opaqueness means we still have doubts. J. Smith-Cameron’s Ellen is touching in how much she wavers between guarding her heart and wanting to believe, while Steve Buscemi’s Leo is much more skeptical. The characters dance around each other, and the hints and questions the situation raises, keeping us involved as the tale plays out. Read full review.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Nancy

Directors: Christina Choe

Release Date: June 8, 2018

Running Time: 87 minutes

Language: English

Screenwriter: Christina Choe

Distribution Company: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Trailer

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferinand, Cynthia Fuchs, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Betsy Bozdech

Betsy Bozdech is the Executive Editor of Common Sense, for which she also reviews films. Her film reviews and commentaries also appear on Reel.com and Hollywood.com.