We’ve all known people like Nancy. The title character of Andrew Semans‘ “Nancy, Please” is a real pill, dark eyes, slumped shoulders, and an eternal pout. There’s always drama in Nancy’s life, and she’s always expressing it physically. She’s always impetuous, always difficult, and frequently nasty, as if lashing out not against a single person but the world at large. In spite of it all, her punk sneer and angular sensuality is also sharp like a knife, tight like a fist. And for young potential PhD Paul, she is an out-and-out boogeyman.
Working as a graduate student at Yale, Paul has just emerged from the dark tunnel of being Nancy’s roommate. We’re led to believe they didn’t interact much, and when they did, it was slightly more than the standard tension that occurs when two young people with nothing in common share space. The more stringently academic Paul, now headed to the safety of an apartment shared with longtime girlfriend Jen, is counting his blessing he’s emerging from shared space with a woman whom he held in almost irrational contempt. Unlike Paul, Nancy had no academic aspirations, very little interest in work, and a general disdain for anyone else: Rebel Yell sharing space with Buttoned-Up Flannel.
Ready to embark upon a period of uninterrupted work prosperity, and facing the deadline for his graduate thesis, Paul just has one problem. The key to his work, the source of his scribbled notes, musings and outlines, are within the pages of Paul’s dog-eared copy of Charles Dickens’ “Little Dorrit,” still located in Nancy’s apartment. Finding another copy of the book is not an issue. Rescuing the supposedly-meticulous notes that should help Paul finally solve the riddle of his dissertation is another matter entirely.
For anyone else, this wouldn’t be an issue. But the condescending Paul, who can’t hide his dislike of Nancy, it’s a recipe for disaster. Unwilling to face direct conflict, he explores every option aside from coming to his former home and speaking to Nancy face-to-face, angering and irritating the girl. The furious Nancy is like a flower that refuses to bloom, and Paul’s strategy seems to involve tossing grenades her way. He bickers with Nancy and pesters her, bypassing the humility that would force him to grovel for the book that may save his academic career, slowly turning an antagonistic aquaintance into a full-blown enemy.
While the argument is that we’ve met women like Nancy, Semans’ film seems to argue that we’ve all been Paul at some point. Paul’s considerable hubris turns a simple disagreement into a massive-scale psychological war. The only problem is, it’s one-sided. As Paul argues “right and wrong” when presenting the issue to an uncaring police officer, Nancy, selfish but in her rights, continues with the rest of her life, barely paying her obnoxious former roommate any mind. As it would be were Paul trying to woo Nancy, it begins to dominate his thoughts. There’s a bit of black humor when he shares an eerily specific torture scenario with a coworker who asks about Nancy, but also truth. Leaving “Little Dorrit” behind has driven a stake through Paul’s life, and he can’t, and/or won’t, carry on with the rest of his life.
“Nancy, Please” begins as a deadpan slacker comedy with existentialist undertones, and Will Rogers‘ Paul is a ball of unsettled twentysomething nerves. It’s a subtle shift in Semans’ first feature, both in tempo and in Rogers’ performance, that we don’t realize the film taking on a slightly more diabolical undertone. Quotation marks are added to Paul’s “hero” character, even as the situation threatens to overwhelm him. One deeply unsettling scene emphasizes the casual horror found in the mundane, as Paul learns of squirrels scurrying behind the walls of his new home. The pitter-patter of their tiny paws creates a cumulative sonic effect of Paul’s surroundings slowly crumbling to the ground, possibly under the weight of Paul’s ill-tempered, sophomoric problem-solving skills.
Despite the ocassional light tone, and the fact that “Nancy, Please” pivots on Paul’s crumbling mental state, the film works almost as if a distaff version of “Jaws,” except Eleonore Hendricks’ Nancy is almost scarier. Like a cross between the goth-sexiness of Clea Duvall and the angular toughness of Charlotte Gainsborough, she appears in the film and immediately grabs your attention. And when she attacks, with a vicious (possibly imagined?) savage scream, it’s an immediately unforgettable moment of terror. From a basic human level, her unpleasantness is her defense mechanism, with the suggestion that she’s lived a very hard life. And even with that humanity, it’s probably a better idea to invite “Jaws” to a dinner party. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.