Every now and again you get a gem like this: a movie that quietly pops up, with little fanfare, loaded with excellent performances and impressive in its subtleties. It made a brief appearance during London Film Festival but will most likely get lost during Oscar Bait season; a fate it truly does not deserve. It’s a film that is economic, both in terms of running time (at only 85 minutes) and story-telling. We only know what the film needs us to know, we only learn what Nancy (Riseborough) wants us to learn. In return we get a gripping psychological drama that meditates about the nature of truth, trust and human connection.
Nancy doesn’t live. She exists. She wakes, has breakfast, goes to her temp job at a dentist surgery, goes home, interacts with her mother (Dowd), spends hours on her computer and then goes to bed to play on her phone. Seemingly unable to interact with others in-person, she relies on the internet for human connections – although these are rarely founded in honesty. She adopts all manner of personas, aliments and heart breaking tales to create some sort of connection. One night she catches a tv report about a couple (Bushemi and Cameron) whose daughter went missing years ago. She would be a similar age to Nancy. Appearance-wise there are possible similarities. And so Nancy goes to visit them, claiming to be their long-lost daughter.
When watching, three films sprang to mind that share something with Nancy; an unlikely trilogy of films: Una (2016) which was a quiet drama featuring Rooney Mara’s character reclaiming the past and unravelling answers: You Were Never Really Here (2018) with Joaquin Phoenix withdrawn from the world and struggling to form human connection. The third, and most obvious, was Bart Layton’s 2012 documentary Imposter; which told the story of a confidence trickster who impersonated a boy who disappeared when he was 13.
The three films, and Nancy, all feature central characters who live an isolated existence. For all manner of reasons they are cut off from the world around them, the film watches them try to live out their lives on the periphery of the norm. That’s done here to a truly exceptional and haunting extent courtesy of some incredible performances. Utilising show not tell, we rely on what is said and unsaid, along with their micro expressions and movements, to assess what exactly is going on.
Nancy is a truly unlikeable character who is fundamentally flawed, yet one we wish to follow and observe. It feels as if it has taken cinema a long time to allow for unlikeable female characters to inhabit the screen. It’s usually deemed more ‘acceptable’ for a male character to be imperfect. After all the term anti-hero gets used far more often than anti-heroine. Women in cinema who have committed wrong doings are penalised, forced to repent and beg for forgiveness to an extent rarely depicted within the arcs of male characters.
Nancy doesn’t show such reflexivity or apology over her actions, most likely because she is so unremittingly sad. She remains an enigma who we only partially get to know through the clues left for her us; a pile of hidden rejection letters, a blog about grief, a trip to North Korea ‘evidenced’ by photos, a ‘My Precious Baby Doll’ pamphlet, her compulsive lying, her unhidden distain at a colleague’s lunch, her temp work and the huge role of the internet within her life.
It’s nigh impossible to feel anything but pity for her when we see her face at night, lying in bed in her pitch-black room, her face illuminated with light by her phone screen. She taps, swipes and reads with little emotion generated. An uncomfortable sense of truth and familiarity is inevitably created.
As the rest of the film plays out, misguided lies and actions continue as the central trio try, to varying extents to convince themselves what they want is actually true. In turn the audience is forced to reflect on the role of truth and the desperation with which we will it to work in our favour, the extents to which we go to deceive ourselves and the futile battle rationality can face in the wake of emotion.
Dir: Christina Choe
Scr: Christina Choe
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Steve Buscemi, Ann Dowd, John Leguizamo, J. Smith-Cameron
Prd: Michelle Cameron, Amy Lo, Andrea Riseborough
DOP: Zoe White
Music: Peter Raeburn
Run time: 85 minutes
Nancy is available on DVD from November 5th.