The 2019 Independent Spirit Awards are just around the corner and when perusing their list of nominees I came across “Nancy”. The film received two nominations, J. Smith-Cameron for Supporting Actress and Christina Choe for Best First Screenplay. After a little digging I found myself really intrigued by the movie’s premise.
Choe also directs this tightly paced drama that first premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. The story is a bit slippery and requires a steady hand and precise tone management. It could have easily careened into overcooked melodrama or downright absurdity. But Choe does a truly impressive balancing act, keeping everything together and under control. It all amounts to one knock-out debut.
Andrea Riseborough stars as the title character Nancy. She’s a young woman in her thirties who splits time working as a temp at a dentist office and caring for her overbearing mother (Ann Dowd) who has Parkinsons. In between she writes short stories and invents online personas as a way of connecting with other people. It’s the latter that she sometimes takes to far. Like ‘catfishing’ a desperate and grieving father (played by a very good John Leguizamo).
This is perfect material for Riseborough, a crafty shapeshifter of an actress who has shown a knack for transformative performances. Her Nancy is pale and disheveled, looking at the world through an ever-present vacant stare. It’s a melancholic portrayal which makes her character a tough one to read. This proves to be a big asset for the narrative especially in the film’s second half.
Mere days after her mother dies, Nancy sees a news report recounting the disappearance of a young girl named Brooke some 35 years prior. The report reveals an image of what Brooke would look like now and the resemblance to Nancy is uncanny. Seeing this, Nancy believes she may be the long-lost Brooke. Or does she? We’re given several reasons to question Nancy’s motivations, yet at the same time she always has our sympathy.
Nancy contacts Brooke’s parents, a tender-hearted intellectual couple who immediately arrange to meet. The mother Ellen (a terrific J. Smith-Cameron) desperately wants to believe she has been reunited with her daughter. Leo, the kind but reasonably cautious father (played by Steve Buscemi), wants to be sure and hires a private investigator to conduct a DNA test.
The dueling tensions of the film are quite fascinating. First, does Nancy truly believe she is Brooke? Second, what will the DNA test results reveal? Those questions stick in the backs of our minds as we try to sort out who gets our empathy. Is it Nancy, Brooke’s parents, maybe both? Choe does a masterful job of keeping us guessing.
VERDICT – 4 STARS