The trope of the unreliable narrator has rarely been put to more dizzying effect than in Nancy, a Sundance hit and feature film debut from director Christina Choe. Andrea Risenborough (The Death Of Stalin, Birdman) steps confidently into the lead here as the titular character, a thirty something woman living in poverty with her abusive mother (Ann Dowd, in a very Ann Dowd role) in North Jersey. Nancy spends her days temping at a doctor’s office, but at all times she seems caught up in telling fantastical lies. You understand when you see the home life she leads- how absurd lies seem more comforting than the truth about her existence. Unfortunately, that existence gets rocked early on when tragedy strikes.
When one door closes, another one tends to open- and one night while Nancy is watching the news, she is taken aback by an interview with a middle aged New York couple named Ellen and Leo (a great J. Smith Cameron and Steve Buscemi). They are talking about their daughter, Brooke, who has been missing for thirty years. The last time they saw her, she was five. You can see the gears in Nancy’s mind start to churn, as if she is wondering how she can insert herself into this couple’s pain, if only to escape her own life for a couple of days. When they show a photo of what Brooke would look like in the present, it bears a striking resemblance to Nancy. Could she have been kidnapped at a young age, and raised by her kidnapper? Could she have had loving parents all along, a side existence that she was completely unaware of? Could this explain the emptiness and loneliness of her life? Nancy calls them up, and sets on a journey to go find out if this is real. We don’t trust her, as lying seems to come as naturally to her as breathing- and yet, this is the first moment in the film where she seems like she believes the words coming out of her own mouth.
Through the rest of the film, we are detectives, parsing out the interactions between Nancy, Ellen and Leo. We want to believe the story so badly (I wrote down in my notes, “I hope this isn’t a cruel joke”). I have read other reviews that believe Nancy is on nothing more than another grifting mission from the start, but I suppose it is to the movie’s credit that I had a wildly different take. I believed, or wanted to believe, the story that these three were telling. We see what we want to see, and Choe is masterful at not showing her hand any more than she has to. Nancy isn’t the only one who wants this to be true- so does Ellen, to the point where she seems willing to overlook discrepancies between Nancy and the daughter that she remembers from thirty years ago. Ellen, a writer and professor, tells Nancy that she had tried writing about her many times, but never completed anything. “I tried to write about your disappearance. First, it was a memoir. Then it was fiction.” No matter how we try, our pasts turn into stories we make up, as memories fade and the muck of life starts to compile.
Nancy is an excellent summer treat, a quiet and cathartic break from summer blockbusters. Feeling sometimes like a thriller, it has a palpable tension that carries through to the end, a discomforting breeze at 85 minutes…and of course, Its wintery, upstate New York setting is a welcome reminder that the fall movie season is just around the corner.
Nancy today at the Ritz At The Bourse.