What does Nancy Freeman want out of life? Subtly played by shapeshifter-turned-actress Andrea Riseborough, she remains a complete enigma right until the final scene of Nancy. Aiming for delicate ambiguity before becoming totally inscrutable, the film can’t maintain its unsettling, sad tone, and despite round-the-board excellent performances to go with a dreamy, lush score by Peter Raeburn, first-time feature director Christina Choe can’t quite find the narrative to match
Nancy is a sad, reclusive woman. She works as a temp at a dentist’s office, but wants to be a writer, frantically checking the post each morning to see if her submissions are successful. They never are. Perhaps this inspires her to weave her own fictions in real life, such as pretending to be pregnant online to win the affection of Jeb (John Leguizamo), who is recently suffering from the still-born death of his own child. Is she trying to manipulate people, or is she just lonely, looking for someone to really care for her?
After her mother (Ann Dowd) dies of Parkinson’s, Nancy sees a story in the news. Leo and Ellen Lynch (Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) have set up a scholarship fund in the name of their daughter, Brooke, who has been missing for over thirty years. Scientists provide a projection of what they think their child would have looked like, and noticing the similarity, Nancy calls Ellen up, telling her she might the girl she’s looking for…
We know that Nancy is a liar from how she treated Jeb, but does she genuinely believe herself to be the couple’s daughter, or is she like Frédéric Bourdin, the serial imposter who pretended to be over 500 different people, including missing children? With its bleak and snowy setting, and with genre queen Riseborough in the lead, Nancy courts noir territory, yet never commits to it, opting for subtle family drama instead. This decision is fine — after all, one can’t judge a film for being a different genre than anticipated — yet going down the “subtle family drama” route doesn’t have to mean abandoning conflict altogether.
Like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s movies, such as Shoplifters and Like Father, Like Son, Nancy asks key questions about what it means to be a family. Is it something one is entitled to, or can it be reverse-manufactured? Unlike with Kore-eda’s work, however, these issues in Nancy aren’t particularly heightened by the drama itself; the search for a lost cat and an unrelated hunting misfire are more distracting than affecting. Considering the lived-in sadness of both Steve Buscemi and J.Smith-Cameron’s performances, they deserved a screenplay that treated their desire for family life with compassion and nuance. Instead, the richness of the premise is diluted by a fuzzy and un-incisive plot.
Completely different from her other 2018 appearances in Mandy, Black Mirror‘s“Crocodile,” and The Death of Stalin, Riseborough uses her varied facial expressions as a mask. We can tell when she is lost deep in thought, but what exactly those thoughts are is anyone’s guess. Early on, she reveals to her colleagues that she went to North Korea alone, but strangely withholds the reason for her trip. An interesting trait (especially as Christina Choe visited the country herself for a TV series), but its never picked up on again — a classic example of Nancy‘s inadequacy when it comes to developing character. Why mention something like that if it doesn’t pay off later?
By the end, one could have several different interpretations of what this woman is really thinking. She could be mentally unstable, damaged, or deeply in need of love. Who knows? It’s like an emotional choose-your-own-adventure story. The problem is that when every opinion is valid, then no opinions are valid. The audience shouldn’t be told how to feel, but sometimes it helps if you push them in the right direction.