Film Review: Nancy

A woman claims to have been abducted as a child in this quiet, moving thriller.
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Tension simmers at a consistent boil in Nancy, the first feature from writer-director Christina Choe. This is a tightly structured story that will leave you guessing about, and feeling for, the broken people at its center.

It’s a harsh winter somewhere in a rural town, and Nancy (a terrific Andrea Riseborough, of Birdman and W.E. fame) is having a difficult time of it—as she has been having for years, the film suggests. Her mother, Betty (Ann Dowd), is very ill and demanding. Nancy is working a temp job, where she tells her co-workers, implausibly, that she spent her vacation at the “DPRK,” otherwise known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, otherwise known as North Korea. When a colleague challenges her, Nancy shows him photos from her trip on her phone. There she is, all right, standing before a statue, within a field, in front of a sign…none of whose names or precise locations she can recall, but then again, they’re all in Korean. The photos look real enough, although this is 2018, the era of “fake news” and mass misinformation. Choe must know we are already primed to wonder: Are Nancy’s images Photoshopped? Did she really go?

That is the ultimate question: Did the things that Nancy say happened, really happen at all? Early in the movie, she is caught “catfishing” (pretending to be someone online that she isn’t IRL) an unsuspecting, grieving father (John Leguizamo), whom she “met” via the comments section of her blog. He catches her in a lie, but Nancy quickly backpedals, saying that she only lied about the timeline of the traumatic event she claims to have suffered. It happened to her before. Is this true? Did she suffer before, or did the event never happen at all? Does the truth lie somewhere in between? And does it matter, if Nancy has so thoroughly convinced herself of her own story?

The strange tale escalates when Nancy sees a news segment on the 30th anniversary of a little girl’s abduction. The girl, Brooke, would have been 35 this year, the same age as Nancy. The police have released a photo of what they think Brooke would look like today. Nancy prints the image, folds it lengthwise, and holds it to her face. The resemblance is remarkable, most notably around the large, protrusive eyes. She rummages through old files. When she happens upon a manila folder labeled “Birth Certificate,” we see that it is empty.

It’s important to mention about this well-crafted character that she is a writer who authors short stories about “different worlds.” When she visits Brooke’s parents, claiming to be their long-lost daughter, we wonder if Nancy is weaving another fiction or finally locating her real place in the world. Matters are further complicated by the aching desire of Brooke’s mother, Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron), to believe, nearly as strongly as Nancy herself, that she has found her daughter at last. Ellen’s husband, Leo (the wonderful Steve Buscemi), is the lone voice of reason here—let’s have a private investigator take DNA samples, just to be sure, he cautions. For two days they await the results, while playing Happy Family.

You may think you know how the story will end, but the commendable thing about Nancy is that its power does not lie in the resolution to its central question “Is Nancy Brooke?” but in the responses of its characters to the revelation. Layers of lies and longing and loneliness pile one on top of the other, until truth as it exists as fact is blurred, and remains most clearly as an emotional understanding. You may never fully understand Nancy’s timeline, but you grow to understand more about her.

Choe won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Nancy at this past Sundance Film Festival, and with good reason. Her film nods to timely issues regarding the nature of reality and digitally aided obfuscation, while managing to tell a human story that could be, with tweaks, told or set in almost any era. Given the desire to achieve a strong sense of verisimilitude that the film seems to exhibit, one could make the argument that its structuring is almost too neat (and more Steve Buscemi would have been appreciated), although the story’s tightness serves its emotional goal. This is a small film and one worth seeking out, just as Choe is a new director and one worth following.

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