A case of mistaken identity or an exploitation of vulnerable grieving parents? Christina Choe’s Nancy may not give the answers that we hope for, but it’s an intriguing slow burn which peels back layers of what identity really means.
Andrea Riseborough plays the wide eyed, almost silent Nancy, a woman who is in search of different life. Living with her mother Betty (played by the phenomenal Ann Dowd) in a small house in a small town, from the beginning Nancy seems to yearn for more than her lot in life. She’s a temp, a position which is envied by her co-workers as they perceive her to be able to come and go as she pleases. She agrees, showing them photos of her recent trip to North Korea - all of which look oddly posed and doctored.
Photos become an important part of Nancy, this scene foreshadowing just how integral they are to the narrative. The turning point of the film comes from Nancy watching a news article on her small television set, detailing the tragedy of a young child, Brooke, who has been missing for 35 years. The parents, Ellen and Leo (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi) plea for anyone with information to come forward. A digital photo is produced, showing what Brooke would look like now. She may be blonder, fuller-faced and look generally in better health - but Brooke does not look dissimilar to Nancy.
This is not lost on Nancy herself, who immediately gets in contact with Ellen and Leo to declare that she may be their long lost daughter. We are shown Nancy's missing birth certificate (the only part of the film which feels heavy handed and forced), and Nancy also claims that she has a memory of being kidnapped, or at least being lost in a mall at some point during her childhood.
Nancy has been seen to have a penchant for lying, either for attention or affection, earlier in the film when she meets Jeb (John Leguizamo), a man from her online blog who believes her to be pregnant. Though her end goal is unclear, Nancy seems to get a kick from pretending to be someone else and so this has an effect on how we see Nancy’s behaviour with Ellen and Leo. We are privy to information that Leo and Ellen do not have and are skeptical that Nancy really believes them to be her parents.
As mentioned earlier - Nancy herself is almost silent throughout the film. The script is quiet and the dialogue sparse. Nancy’s only genuine connection is to her cat Paul, so it is difficult to understand what is going through Nancy’s mind. Riseborough’s face doesn’t give much away, other than general discomfort, and Nancy doesn’t disclose her emotions to anyone - not even Ellen who she becomes close to.
Nancy also touches, in a tender way, on nature vs. nurture. Nancy is a keen writer - her car glove compartment is filled with rejection letters from various literary magazines and it’s her (made-up) online blog that she connects to Jeb through. Ellen is an academic in the field of literature, and Choe gently asks the question - would Nancy’s life have been different had she been bought up by Ellen and Leo, in their large home, with their wealth and influence? In some sense, it doesn’t really matter if Nancy is their daughter - bringing her into this world which is so far from her life with Betty, working as a temp, gives Nancy a glimpse of a life she could have had.
Buscemi and Cameron-Smith play the potential parents with heartbreaking hope and optimism. Leo, unlike Ellen, is unconvinced on Nancy's arrival into their lives but once he begins to bond with her - there's a palpable sense of hope that this might be the daughter they've been waiting so long for. The anxiety, fatigue and grief resonates off the screen from both Leo and Ellen which fuels the desire for this situation to work well - for Nancy to actually be Brooke.
The film starts in the rarely used 3:4 ratio, feeling cramped and claustrophobic as Nancy and Betty co-exist in the small, junk-filled house. The small frame only adds to the feeling of being cooped up - a feeling which Nancy knows all too well. When she leaves her family home on her journey to find Leo and Ellen, the frame opens up and becomes the wider 16:9 ratio. The wider perspective feels more comfortable, as if everything is falling into place. There is more space, onscreen and in Ellen and Leo's country house. Nancy seems to extend too, it takes a bit of time but she begins to fit into their home and their lives, just as she takes command of the screen too.
Overall, Nancy is a quietly impressive first feature from Choe with a haunting performance from Riseborough at its core. Choe's clearly a talented filmmaker, and it will be fascinating to see what she does next.