Film Review: “Nancy” — Getting a Life is Hard

Nancy is mystifying, but in this case the inexplicable has its fascinations.

Nancy, directed by Christina Choe. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA.

Andrea Riseborough in ‘Nancy.”

By Peg Aloi

In this dark and often funny feature film debut from writer-director Christina Choe, Andrea Riseborough (already having a very good year after her superb turn in The Death of Stalin) stars as a quirky, maudlin, and lonely 35-year-old woman on the cusp of change. As the film begins, Nancy is furiously texting while her mother Betty (Ann Dowd in a brief but powerful cameo) sits on the toilet and complains that Nancy is too busy on her phone to help her. The two seem to have a comfortable yet sometimes tense rapport; Betty has Parkinson’s disease and Nancy is her caregiver. There’s no talk of who Nancy’s father is, and there’s a reference to a loser boyfriend who’s no longer around. Betty opens Nancy’s mail, which includes rejection letters from the likes of The Paris Review, as well as greeting cards offering congratulations on the birth of a child. Betty assures her daughter that if she wants to have a baby it’s not too late.

Skinny, pale, and shabbily dressed, Nancy has choppy black hair (sort of The Cure meets The Craft) and haunted, sleep-deprived eyes. She meanders through life: she takes care of her mother (though the latter complains Nancy doesn’t take her to the doctor when it is necessary), works as a temp, and lies to her coworkers about going on vacations in North Korea. Selfies show her standing in front of random travel posters; she explains to her doubting employer that it’s very easy to go to North Korea as an American tourist. Early on it becomes clear that Nancy is a liar and a scammer. Her social life revolves around people she meets through her blog, which details her struggle being pregnant with a child who has chromosomal abnormalities.

After she chats online with a man named Jeb, whose wife went through a similar tragic pregnancy, we see Nancy in front of a mirror, her huge eyes and thin lashes making her look like a figure in a Keane painting. Cinematographer Zöe Smith (who has also worked on Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale) artfully captures the moody isolation of Nancy’s existence, her pale face glowing in the light of her smart phone. There is a memorable visual moment of vanity and longing when Nancy, anticipating meeting a man, paints her pale lips with wine-colored lipstick. She looks like an ancient religious icon, or maybe a witch from a fairytale — beautiful, but aloof and possibly dangerous.

Nancy arranges to meet Jeb (John Leguizamo, who’s been cast in some very interesting roles lately) at a local diner. Before going out, she straps a fake baby bump underneath her baggy sweatshirt. Nancy and Jeb bond over coffee and their ‘shared’ hardship. The spark between them speaks of compassion and loneliness; but it also seems obvious that Nancy is scamming him. What does she want from him? A boyfriend? A partner in fantasy? It’s hard to say.

Soon after meeting Jeb, Nancy awakens one morning to find her mother cold and unresponsive. The night before, Betty had been complaining of pain in her arm; Nancy had sat beside her while they watched Oliver Twist, massaging her mother’s arm and hugging her as the two stared blankly into the light of the television. The cold affection between them may or may not haunt Nancy as she goes through the motions of medical and funeral arrangements.

A few days later, haggard and tired, Nancy runs into Jeb at the grocery store. She tries to avoid him. He asks why she’s been ignoring his calls. When he sees her flat stomach, she’s forced to admit she lied about being pregnant. She explains she did have a baby that died — and “only lied about when.” Did she have a baby that died? One thing that makes Nancy‘s narrative so compelling for me was its refusal to  confirm or deny Nancy’s lies; we’re buoyed along on the dizzy trajectory of her journey, wondering what’s real in a landscape that is so drab and soulless that it must be a small industrial town in New Jersey. Nancy is too low energy to be manic, too mandate to be a charismatic fantasist.

One night, while sorting through old magazines, Nancy catches a story on the news about a middle-aged couple who are marking the 30 year anniversary of the disappearance of their five-year-old daughter. Ellen (the excellent J. Smith-Cameron) and Leo (Steve Buscemi, who also, oddly, starred opposite Riseborough in The Death of Stalin) are setting up a scholarship fund in honor of their daughter Brooke. The news report shows a picture of the missing girl, which is then jointed by a photo altered to show what Brooke may look like at age 35. The 35 year old version of Brooke is nearly a dead ringer for Nancy, albeit with a more becoming hair style. Nancy prints out a photo of the two Brookes, folds it in half, and holds it up to her face in the mirror.  The film’s examination of identity takes another spin: who is this Nancy person? Why is she afraid to face who she really is?

Nancy contacts Ellen, who lives in Oswego, NY, and says she has information about her daughter. She says she thinks her mother may have kidnapped her when she was little, and that she may be Brooke. Ellen’s horror and alarm gives way to curiosity (a response that seemed somewhat disingenuous to me, but J. Cameron-Smith’s talent smooths over an iffy plot point), and she says she wants to meet Nancy, who agrees to come right away. She puts her cat Paul into a carrier, packs a bag of clothes, and heads out of the dingy house she shared with Betty, her mother’s urn of ashes sitting on a curio shelf in the living room.

Nancy seems convinced she may indeed be this child. Though it also seems possible that she is convinced by her own lies (the false pregnant belly, the fake North Korea photos). She is used to pushing the envelope until she is caught. Upon meeting her, Ellen is immediately charmed and Leo is immediately suspicious, not unreasonable reactions from people whose worst nightmares have lingered for three decades. The visit progresses; Nancy is thrilled to learn Ellen is a literature professor. She shyly asks her to read one of her stories. The second paragraph on the page we’re shown, when Leo prints it out, is a word for word steal from a passage in S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. A joke by the filmmaker? A clue to the mystery that is Nancy?

Ultimately, Nancy’s growing belief that she might be Brooke seems less about delusion than wishful thinking. The nearly unconditional acceptance she receives from two strangers may, incredibly enough, trigger a transformative effect on her life. That might not be psychologically plausible, but neither is much else in this quirky but compelling study of a determinedly inscrutable character. Nancy is mystifying, but in this case the inexplicable has its fascinations. And I don’t think I have seen a better performance yet this year than Andrea Riseborough as this strange, unknowable woman.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at

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