Nancy is a liar. That’s the first thing we learn about Andrea Riseborough’s eponymous character in Christina Choe’s taut feature debut, “Nancy,” but Choe’s sharp writing and Riseborough’s nervy performance only use that as a jumping-off point. Nancy’s lies initially appear to be her attempt to engage with a world that has eluded and likely discarded her, a 35-year-old nobody who toils at temp jobs, tries to launch a writing career, and is trapped in a messy house with her ailing mother Betty (Ann Dowd, leaving a big impression with little screen time). She’s a little obsessed with the internet and her cell phone, burying her nose into screens while Betty belittles and berates her. Riseborough delivers most of Nancy’s lines with a flat affect, but it’s clear that plenty stirs behind her eyes.
When we first meet Nancy, she’s deep in her latest ploy: a blog that chronicles the recovery of a woman who lost an infant, and uses the platform to reach out to other parents who have suffered the same tragedy. Except, Nancy never had a baby that she lost (or did she?), and the name she uses isn’t her own. When she meets up with a reader (a heartbreaking John Leguizamo), she arrives at their coffee date wearing a fake belly, telling her internet friend that she’s pregnant again and hopeful for the future. As he solemnly promises Nancy that he’s not “a total creep from the internet,” both she and the audience must grapple with the truth: She’s the total creep from the internet.
And yet the emotion that she elicits from Leguizamo’s Jeb is real, and when it later leads to a surprising standoff between the pair in a location as banal as the supermarket, the moment delivers the kind of gasping gut punch that keeps Nancy reeling for the rest of the film’s runtime. It also foreshadows the biggest question of “Nancy”: How do you put a price on the truth when emotions override all honesty?
That’s really what Choe is toying with here, see-sawing between the sense that Nancy is spinning tales to spice up her otherwise boring life and the understanding that perhaps those lies are really all she has. The lies will only get bigger, and so will the emotional impact of “Nancy” and Riseborough’s rich performance. Made even more isolated by recent events, a bored Nancy happens to catch a local newscast dedicated to exploring the kidnapping of a young girl some 30 years ago, with her still-shattered parents (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi) taking to the airwaves to discuss both the scholarship they’ve put in place in memory of young Brooke and to share an aged-up picture of what Brooke might look like today.
Bluntly: She looks just like Nancy, or at least enough like Nancy to get her busy brain going (and to get the audience to wonder if perhaps Nancy’s lies aren’t as outlandish as we once thought). It’s a thrilling twist, and further proof of Choe’s canny ability to use the seeming constraints of crafting a story around a character we know to be liar to delve deeper into issues of understanding. While Riseborough’s performance is the main attraction here, at least the most initially dazzling, Choe’s writing is as taut and incisive as it comes. The first-time feature filmmaker is all about delivering compelling details with a minimum of fuss — just one tossed-off comment from Dowd and a single rejection later from The Paris Review, and the status of Nancy’s career is blindingly obvious. A trio of slapdash digital photos conveys years’ worth of Nancy’s twisted pathology and how she ensnares people in her games.
Soon, Nancy is on her way to Ellen (Smith-Cameron) and Leo’s (Buscemi) bucolic upstate New York home, where her own desires begin to give way to a shared delusion that just might be true. (Although the filmmaking of “Nancy” is by no means showy, Choe effectively utilize a squared-off 4×3 aspect ratio for scenes that follow Nancy and Betty, vividly expanding the screen outward as Nancy finally leaves her home, just as her own possibilities are expanding to contain new multitudes. It’s clever, and it works.)
Both Smith-Cameron and Buscemi prove to be solid foils for Riseborough, with Smith-Cameron’s Ellen giving herself over to the stranger almost immediately, while Buscemi’s Leo hangs and holds back until he can no longer. But it’s Riseborough who holds the film fast, rooting its seemingly wild twists and character developments into something haunting and, quite often, eerily understandable. The stories she tells might be fake, but the feeling behind them is real. The past might be unchangeable, but the future can be forced.
Nancy is a liar, but the trick is, we can’t help but believe her. We want to.
“Nancy” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.