Much of what happens and resonates in Nancy occurs on the face of its star, Andrea Riseborough — so much so that it could be tempting to dismiss the movie itself as a trifle or an interesting idea undeveloped. But I'd urge any viewer to look closely at the lead actress. The emotional journey of the story — and it’s a fairly dramatic one — comes alive and gathers force through her expressions. She is the movie.
Thank God, too, because it could have all gone horribly wrong. Riseborough’s Nancy is a sad-sack Internet addict and aspiring writer, living with her ailing mother (Ann Dowd) in a nondescript home, doing temp work when she’s not online making up identities for herself to gather sympathy and attention. She’s not a particularly smart scammer, either; early on, we see her telling the people at work about a recent trip to...North Korea. (“They have great shopping,” she observes casually.) There’s little specificity to her fantasies and identities. Here’s a woman who has basic dreams about beaches and happy families, and we gather that she’s never really had the chance to imagine in full what she’d like her life to be. Her sense of the world and its possibilities has been slowly strangled.
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Riseborough’s great accomplishment is anchoring the comic dimension of her character with an undercurrent of gentle melancholy. I say “anchoring” because the sadness both sells and tempers the comedy, turning her from a potential object of ridicule (or pity) into an object of fascination. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Nancy's submerged anxiety. Riseborough manages a preternatural stillness while letting her eyes dart around with almost surreal speed. During one close-up, I could have sworn that the film had jump-cut to a different close-up, but no, that was just the speed with which she’d managed to shift expressions. To support the performance, director Christina Choe underplays the humor and builds moods more than scenes, so that we’re always locked into the emotional experience of what we’re seeing rather than the particulars of the plot.
Nancy’s life starts to look like it might change when her mom dies, and then, not long after, she sees a news report on TV about a couple whose five-year-old daughter disappeared mysteriously thirty years ago. The picture of the girl shown on TV looks a lot like Nancy herself. She checks the file marked “birth certificate” in mom’s things; it’s empty. Could it be that the life she’s living isn’t the one she was meant for? She calls the couple (played by J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi, both quietly excellent), and they invite her to visit. Her world suddenly seems to open up. Literally. The film changes aspect ratio, from the boxed-in constraints of Academy to the fullness of a wider screen, a nice but simple formal touch that I missed the first time I watched the movie, even though I felt the openness.
This isn’t a plot-driven film, but it does build suspense in unlikely ways. Because Choe has already established Nancy’s lack of credibility, we never quite know exactly what the character is thinking. Her initial interest in this couple and their missing child appears genuine, but we can’t really tell whether Nancy is being honest or working another con when she vaguely recalls a long-lost memory or claims that her mom once told her she was adopted. And yet, even so, the film remains firmly in Nancy’s headspace. We may not know what she’s thinking, but we do know what she’s feeling. Ordinarily, this might be a mistake — telling a story through the eyes of someone we don’t trust throws every plot detail into question, which can pull us out of the movie in all sorts of unintended ways — but here the disorientation is bracing and unpredictable.
Through it all, Riseborough remains the film’s great engine. Her eyes speak both of possibility and trepidation — of someone at once taking in the world and deeply fearful of what might be next. Yes, there is a core of sadness to this performance, but it’s not of the dull, mopey kind. It’s the sense of someone who appears not to have lived fully enough even to experience true disappointment. In approaching this couple who may or may not be her real parents, Nancy is hoping for a better life, perhaps — but what she really wants is the simplest connection, the feeling of being regarded by someone for who she is. She wants to be seen.