While watching director Christina Choe’s lonely and isolating first act of Nancy, one might start to wonder when the aspects of the film’s mystery might come in. For the first half hour we mostly see the title character (Andrea Riseborough) caring after her sick mother (Ann Dowd) with a shortage of enthusiasm in their small, impersonal home. Nancy does temp work, runs a blog and spends almost all of her time alone on her phone. For impatient viewers this may be one of many pacing hurdles to overcome, but in my opinion without this initial look at Nancy’s quite frankly depressing life what follows wouldn’t be half as interesting.
More than anything Nancy is an exploration of loneliness and want for connection. Nancy, having no rewarding human relationships, sees Leo and Ellen (Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) on the news shortly after her mother passes, and as they discuss their daughter who went missing thirty years ago, her face begins to change to an expression of confusion. The picture they’re holding looks like her, and the render of what the adult version of the girl would look like now is like “looking in a mirror”. With her mother unable to answer burning questions, Nancy reaches out to the couple and so begins the all-consuming wait for confirmation or denial of paternity.
Unlike most films of this nature, Nancy takes its sweet time, maybe tediously so if you came in looking for thrills. As wonderfully strange as Riseborough is in the role, the film never crosses over into full-on thriller territory and spends most of its time tapping into the psychological dramas Nancy, Leo and Ellen face in the wake of Nancy’s first phone call to their house. After Nancy accepts an invitation to stay with them, she is met with both restraint and welcome. Leo is more suspicious but Ellen seems to be warming to her more with every touch. Obviously, it’s incredibly awkward for everyone involved, which makes how they operate within this strange dynamic compelling. Neither of the parents want to accept or reject that this stranger is their daughter, because both ways of thought could bring pain to them. False hope could deal a crushing blow, and complete rejection of the idea hurts too because it might be their last ever shot at getting her back. They are stuck in a limbo of feeling and trying not to feel that makes every interaction with Nancy count for something.
As a viewer, the sympathy shifts to them as we see Nancy evolve her initial story of not knowing anything about her childhood into statements that sound untrue. What makes the question of fiction or reality so interesting is that we as viewers don’t actually know the answer, even Nancy’s (probable) lies can’t be confirmed as lies because we are never shown the period of her life she alludes to. Watching Nancy and trying to figure out whether she is remembering her lost past or creating false memories because she wants to be Ellen and Leo’s daughter is part of the fun. Her lack of identity and meaning in the world leaves her open to wishful thinking and self-manipulation. It’s up to you to perceive if there’s an underlying mean spirit or not.
Riseborough is amazing (duh) and multifaceted to the point it’s hard to see what her true intentions are and how much she actually is sure of regarding her birth parents. It may be a misstep not taking a little extra time to deep dive into the character, but it could be argued that it’s better that way. One of the film’s faults is that it follows suit with the rest of the characters. Although it’s nice not having things spelled out for us, it’s also slightly frustrating to not have at least a little bit more of a grip outside of a small understanding. By the end of the film everything comes together but it doesn’t surprise me to hear that some viewers got lost along the way without character definition. In the same vein, I think it’s fair to say enjoyment of Nancy will come down to personal tastes regarding writing.
Perhaps the boldest thing about a story that hinges on a yes or no question is the fact the answer was never the important thing in the end. It asks us why we want things to be true, if we really want answers and if we deserve the things we desire. Three people and their shattered lives start to be glued together for better or worse, and the wonder I’m left with: is it worth it to just pretend for the sake of someone’s healing process? If we want something so badly to be true that we construct things to back it up in our heads then is it not, in this isolated bubble around these people, true?
Although Nancy isn’t the most solid of watches, it’s certainly absorbing. The quiet and snowy atmosphere gives way to contemplation and the below ninety-minute runtime is a stand-up choice that is just right to keep things moving despite a slow pace.