After a series of excellent short films, including 2011’s award-winning I Am John Wayne, writer/director Christina Choe makes her feature debut with a low-key psychological drama that contains faint echoes of Bart Layton’s missing-child documentary The Imposter (2012).
Andrea Riseborough is the titular Nancy. An aspiring writer, she lives with her sick mum Betty (Ann Dowd from The Handmaid’s Tale) and, in between receiving rejection letters from publishers and temping at a dental surgery, spends her time weaving elaborate deceptions, such as the blog in which she chronicles a non-existent pregnancy and the Photoshopped pictures of her “holiday” in North Korea. All we can truly ascertain about her puzzle of a life is that she’s deeply unhappy and, at some point, had a baby but lost it.
Following her mother’s sudden death, Nancy sees a couple on the news – Leo and Ellen (Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) – whose young daughter went missing 30 years before and, because she bears a resemblance to an “age-enhanced” photo of the girl, decides they must be one and the same. Nancy arranges to meet the parents at their beautiful house in the country, a world away from the cramped, gloomy home she shared with her mother. Perhaps in a nod to Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (2014), Choe even immediately widens the film’s boxy aspect ratio to underline Nancy’s step into a world of new possibilities as she attempts to leave her old life behind.
The question is, does she really believe she is Leo and Ellen’s long-lost daughter Brooke or is it just another deception? Choe initially invites you to dismiss the notion but as Nancy grows closer to Ellen, you start to wonder if it could be true and even root for the possibility. Leo – Buscemi in unusually restrained form – keeps her at arm’s length but his wife is desperate to believe. Smith-Cameron is heartbreakingly good here as she expertly essays a woman who has been through the emotional wringer for 30 years but is too tough to ever entirely surrender to the pain and guilt.
Nancy is an odd woman. No make-up, blank expression and big eyes peeping out from under a helmet of jet-black hair, you find her difficult to warm to. Her only genuine bond seems to be with her ginger cat, Paul, perhaps a substitute for the baby she lost. After co-starring in 2013’s Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion and following it up with an appearance in the Oscar-winning Birdman, Riseborough seemed destined for the Hollywood A-list. But she has been keener to take on smaller, more unusual roles in cult comedies (Mindhorn, The Death of Stalin), TV shows (Black Mirror, Waco) and even phantasmagorical horror flick Mandy. Her endlessly expressive eyes do most of the heavy lifting here as Nancy appears to be in a permanent state of quiet panic, perhaps terrified in equal parts by the possibility she might be revealed as a charlatan or, scarier still, that she really is the missing Brooke.
Choe’s film is every bit as much about class and unfulfilled opportunity as it is about Nancy’s parentage. What would Nancy’s life be like if she had been raised by Leo (a psychologist) and Ellen (a professor of comparative literature) rather than a struggling and poorly single mum? Certainly, she’d have turned out very different to the maladroit creature we see here. Nancy writes well, dreams of travel, takes control of the situation when a teenager is injured in a hunting accident – her life so far has failed to do justice to her mind or ambition.
Nancy – which won the Waldo Salt screenwriting prize at this year's Sundance – contains several stand-out moments. There’s a dinner sequence in which Ellen and Leo come on like good cop/bad cop as they gently interrogate their would-be daughter about her past, and a nice sequence shot in snowy woods where Nancy looks for Paul (who has run off). Her sense of dread is clearly meant to mirror Ellen’s when Brooke went missing all those years ago and it’s a canny piece of storytelling. The kind of quirky humour Choe used to good effect in shorts such as Flow (about a girl with OCD) and The Queen (the tale of a dry cleaner and a prom dress) might be in short supply but the director manages to include a couple of smart sight gags to leaven what is, at times, a sad and troubling film.
Extras: This is a vanilla disc without so much as a trailer. Let's hope for a more substantial release in due course.