Christina Choe’s “Nancy” opens on a gray winter in a crumbling town. The strip malls are battered, the dining rooms are dim, and there’s silver in 35-year-old Nancy’s (Andrea Riseborough) hair. At 35, she’s a temp who still lives at home with her mom (Ann Dowd). No wonder she reaches for cheap, black dye — and no wonder she lies to make life more interesting, brandishing cellphone pictures to prove she’s vacationed in North Korea. Anywhere, and anything, is better than here.
When parents Leo and Ellen (Steven Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) on the TV news insist they’re continuing the search for their missing daughter Brooke, who was kidnapped from a mall in the ’80s, Nancy picks up the phone and says she might be their stolen child. Only, this time she might be telling the truth. Her mother wasn’t much of a mother. Plus, Nancy looks exactly like the adult rendering of who Brooke might be today — or maybe Brooke’s pencil sketch looks like the person Nancy wishes she could have been, if she’d been raised with money and love.
Should Leo and Ellen trust her? A title sequence of blurry home photos hints at how little anyone remembers being young. Sure, so far needy Nancy is a faker. But failing a flashback to Dowd pushing her out of the womb, can we be certain she’s wrong? Her hollow hunger seems to want the crime to be real. And when she tells Ellen that she’s always felt like something was missing in her life, that feels true. Nancy’s not a complete human, and Choe isn’t offering any other explanation as to why.
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It’s an apt role for Riseborough, a screen chimera with the eerie ability to shape-shift between awkward teenagers and grown women. Here, she’s both at once, an immature, exhausted-looking, vague blur who might grow old and die before she figures out who she truly is. Wrapping herself in a chewed-up fur coat to meet internet friend Jeb (John Leguizamo), she looks like the one-in-every-small-town thrift-store misfit who imagines she’s Elizabeth Taylor. Or, perhaps, based on quick glimpses of Nancy’s rejected submissions to the Paris Review, her role model is fraud novelist JT LeRoy. (Though Nancy doesn’t seem to have a deep interest in the arts — when dragged to a gallery, she stares at the walls like she’s killing time at the mechanics.)
Mostly, though, Choe just encourages Riseborough to look blank and numbed. Imagine Edward Scissorhands without the charm. She’s an enigma played like a vacuum in a mystery we quickly lose interest in solving. The film is just too miserable to encourage the audience to offer up our empathy, when it doesn’t have affection for anything in it either. Everything is awful. The house Nancy’s desperate to leave looks like it hasn’t been dusted since the ’70s — the production design is so oppressively outdated it has the fairy-tale feel of a witch’s hut. Leguizamo’s been laden with bad teeth, hair, and nails. The disfigured sign at the diner where they have their first date makes the Greek omelet special look like a ransom note. If Nancy scrambles an egg, it has to be the worst-looking egg in cinema. Even surrounded by the bright colors of a supermarket aisle, from outside you hear the cold sound of a car crunching in slush. Steeped in this mindset, just the grocery’s name — Great American Shoppers — seems snide.
The sky doesn’t turn blue until Nancy drives to meet Leo and Ellen in their quaint farmhouse in the country, bringing along her cat, Paul. Leo is allergic, and so Paul is quickly quarantined in the sunporch. For a moment, you wonder if the couple wants to quarantine Nancy, too. Could this creature really be the grown daughter they’ve imagined? But together, their loneliness and Nancy’s emptiness form a black hole that draws them together, despite Leo’s reservations. This is the most normal part Buscemi’s played in years — maybe ever — and he’s grounded, skeptical, and focused on his wife’s stability as they wait for the DNA results. As for Ellen, she tucks this strange woman-child into Brooke’s old bedroom and quickly escalates the pronoun “her” into “you.”
Choe pokes at the trio’s mutual delusion, teasing out something about the need to feel complete. But the film’s already made it clear that Nancy doesn’t fit anywhere. In Leo and Ellen’s welcoming home, Riseborough’s performance becomes even more alienating, which has the side effect of us hoping these nice people don’t have to set a permanent place for her at their table.
There’s an interesting idea in Ellen’s almost fugue-state fervor to put her family back together, which could make the film work if the plot centered on our sick sense that she’s being hustled. But for all the close-ups of Riseborough’s deliberately deadened face, the script doesn’t let her character come into focus as either a cruel instigator or an isolated woman who desperately wants to believe. Nancy’s truth is probably in-between. Yet, instead of exploring her actions, and the people they affect, Nancy‘s restraint keeps the film closed-off and grim, as muddy gray as the life she’s aching to ditch.