‘NANCY’: Film Review | Sundance 2018

Andrea Riseborough, Ann Dowd, John Leguizamo and Steve Buscemi star in Christina Choe’s film about a woman who becomes convinced she was kidnapped as a child.

A sort of depressed distant cousin to last year’s Ingrid Goes West, NANCY tells a tale of female self-reinvention gone disturbingly awry. But while the earlier film was a joyride — giddy and upbeat even as it made you squirm and sweat — this feature directorial debut from Christina Choe, premiering in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance, is an unabashed downer. The movie’s refusal to ingratiate is admirable, even if you end up wondering whether it was worth all the doom and gloom.

Our eponymous anti-heroine (Andrea Riseborough) lives with her nagging, Parkinson’s-afflicted mother (Ann Dowd, in another of her monster-lady roles) in a dingy house somewhere bleak, suburban and Northeastern. Aside from the comforts offered by her beloved cat, Nancy’s life is joyless: She sleepwalks through temp shifts at a dental office, helps Mom onto and off the toilet, surfs the web. But she has aspirations, as attested by a pile of rejection letters from the fiction departments of publications like The Paris Review.

Riseborough, last seen wooing Billie Jean King over a haircut in Battle of the Sexes, is frumped-up here, her kewpie-doll radiance dulled by a sickly pallor, bad bangs and a delivery that’s deadpan verging on lethargic. She’s the kind of actress that makes you lean in and pay attention, even if, in this case, the character she’s playing registers more as abstraction — an embodiment of internet-age dysfunction — than flesh-and-blood human.

Though Nancy’s pathological dishonesty is established when she leads a guy she picks up online (John Leguizamo) to believe she’s pregnant — she actually stuffs a fake belly under her shirt when she goes to meet him — Choe is coy about what, precisely, ails her protagonist. Is Nancy mentally ill, severely maladjusted, a calculating impostor? The writer-director’s decision to keep lines blurred and diagnoses unstated isn’t a problem in itself, but our investment in Nancy is inevitably undermined when we meet the two other key characters, whose suffering is palpable in its specificity.

Those are Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron) and Leo (Steve Buscemi), a middle-aged couple Nancy first sees on TV being interviewed about their daughter, Brooke, who disappeared 30 years ago at age 5. Nancy contacts an initially dubious Ellen claiming to be that daughter, and before long she’s feasting on roast chicken and sipping red wine in their roomy, rustic house. Leo, a psychologist, is hospitable if circumspect, but Ellen, a comparative literature professor, goes all in; once she meets Nancy and notes a physical resemblance to Brooke, her yearning for this strange woman to be her long-lost child turns into full-fledged conviction. Nancy, meanwhile, is quietly dazzled by Ellen and Leo’s generosity and casual, comfy sophistication. This is as close to familial love — and to The Paris Review — as she’s likely to get, and she savors it even as she anxiously waits for them to wise up.

Choe and DP Zoe White shoot early scenes in a boxy aspect ratio, emphasizing the stark limitations of Nancy’s life; the frame widens and brightens when Nancy meets Ellen and Leo, as her world is opened up to possibilities, both emotional and economic, she has never known. It’s a stylistic choice that makes sense given the expansive, effortlessly lived-in kindness and intelligence conveyed by Smith-Cameron and Buscemi.

Whereas dazed, delusional outcast Nancy is a recognizable type from various dark indie dramedies we’ve seen (and forgotten), Ellen and Leo, in their internalized anguish and everyday resilience, resonate as the more original characters. That’s no small feat, since the grieving parent is among the most tiresomely overused figures in narrative film today. But Smith-Cameron (so wonderful as Anna Paquin’s stage-actress mother in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret) exudes a tremulous maternal warmth that feels achingly real, and Buscemi has rarely, if ever, been more touching or subdued. They convey such a vivid sense of these people, their painful shared history and the hushed, haunted life they’ve rebuilt that you may wish Choe had focused on Ellen and Leo instead of the indecipherable Nancy.

The filmmaker never pulls us into the twists and turns of her main character’s mind, and she tiptoes around, rather than tackles, her ideas about class envy, the performative nature of identity and the tension between truth and happiness. Presumably aiming for complexity, her approach ends up coming off as hesitant; the impression left is more of familiar tropes and tones carefully reassembled than of any kind of exploration or excavation.

What sticks with you are those moments when Smith-Cameron and Buscemi cut right through the movie’s haze of vagueness, making this slice of American-indie miserabilism feel like something more.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production company: Eon Productions
Writer-director: Christina Choe
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, J. Smith-Cameron, Steve Buscemi, Ann Dowd, John Leguizamo
Producers: Amy Lo, Michelle Cameron, 
Andrea Riseborough
Executive producers: Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson, Mynette Louie, Rachel Song

Cinematographer: Zoe White
Production designer: Charlotte Royer
Costume designer: Tere Duncan
Composer: Peter Raeburn
Editor: David Gutnik
Casting: Lauren Grey, Lois Drabkin

87 minutes

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