We have to appreciate what we have now.
To look at Nancy Freeman (Andrea Riseborough) is to see a defeated woman. Her single moment of hope throughout the day is the chance of opening mail to check whether her latest writing submission was accepted for publication—a hope perpetually dashed by the fact her oppressive mother (Ann Dowd‘s Betty) already ripped the envelope seams to find rejection letters inside. Relegated to temp work since her hours must always revolve around Mom’s Parkinson’s needs, her life becomes forever isolated from friendship, joy, and love except for those examples of each that she clandestinely creates with no ill will. Desperate to be noticed, Nancy manufactures fictitious personas to draw people close with sparks of intrigue before they ultimately forget why it was she seemed interesting the previous day.
Writer/director Christina Choe crafts her debut feature Nancy so that we do the same. We become sad when it’s inferred through an online blog Nancy writes that she lost a baby and excited about the photos she apparently took in North Korea despite knowing it would be impossible for her to leave her mother that long regardless of whether the DPRK was even a feasible destination for her to travel. We want these things to be true if only because the moments in which others believe them give her usually blankly guarded face a reason to become animated with emotion. She’ll drive miles to visit Jeb (John Leguizamo) under false pretenses and sit alone in the office common room dreaming of conversation because going home only delivers despair.
So it’s no surprise she’d fall into a deeper malaise once tragedy strikes. Nor that she’d find herself susceptible to a dream that could lend sense to her life up until this point. It comes in the form of a couple on the television (Steve Buscemi‘s Leo and J. Smith-Cameron‘s Ellen) talking about the thirtieth anniversary of their young daughter’s disappearance. Nancy gazes upon the computer-generated rendering of what the girl may look like today as though it is a mirror. Suddenly her mother’s vitriol and the lack of having a birth certificate are rendered purposeful; the notion that she never belonged provided a legitimate cause beyond mere depression or bad luck. For once it’s life rather than imagination that’s supplying an opportunity for full-scale rebirth.
Ellen and Leo are more than willing to see how things play out because they want this far-flung hope to transform into reality. They invite Nancy over until a private investigator can take DNA samples and determine if she is indeed their daughter. One is a skeptic (Leo’s psychologist) and the other over-the-moon (Ellen’s optimistic literature professor). In Nancy they see the laconic and shy victim of a terrible crime now possessed with the chance to become whole again. In them she sees a life with warmth, support, and compassion—everything Betty never gave her. We wonder what might happen if the results are negative (with each person forced to confront their grief again), but it’s easy to see these brief moments of happiness as being worth it.
There’s an air of mystery lingering above the first half so Choe can manifest a sense of foreboding that our minds gravitate towards. We’re constantly thinking the worst even though Nancy has never shown a propensity for true malice in her lies. The way Riseborough’s amateur writer smiles when learning her might-be parents are educated, loving, and of the arts is therefore the first pure moment of bliss she’s afforded since the start and a sign we can breathe easy. The expectations she and Smith-Cameron’s Ellen place upon this converge are heartbreaking nonetheless with so much riding on the truth, but their relationship escalates with ease once it’s apparent the younger woman isn’t after more than emotional connection. This isn’t a scam. It’s a legitimate cry for love.
How it’s met is expertly drawn with empathy from script and performance. Choe knows exactly when to have Ellen and Leo prove they believe Nancy and when to have them keep her at arm’s length with nothing but words. There’s a constant push and pull as tiny things lend her to them just as others mark her as different. They get a taste of her frustration as well as her compassion, her untapped artistic talent and shy introversion. Eventually their own truths are made—not as an escape, but for inclusion. A cynic could say they’re playing family without knowing if they should while a romantic would shine a light on the possibility that it doesn’t matter. Perhaps their respective desire for one another’s companionship can be enough.
And that’s where Riseborough and Smith-Cameron truly transcend. There’s a delicacy to their dynamic because it knows how fragile things are. The former all but turns away when her might-be parents get too close while the latter traverses the slippery slope of trust Nancy has spent a lifetime steeling herself towards due to Betty’s psychological torture. We watch as they open up and quickly retreat, often within the same second as mind overcomes heart to not risk throwing their tenuous balance off-kilter. They both know that the other is yearning for a hug and yet engaging in one could ruin everything. It therefore says so much when they finally embrace without the formal air of introductory pleasantries once the truth is discovered yet still poignantly unspoken.
The film proves a beautifully composed character piece refusing to languish in hopeless melancholy for added drama. Choe knows that the opposite can create just as much intrigue if not more because it reveals humanity’s power to overcome biological imperatives and see what can be accomplished by simple and honest grace. Rather than some grand gesture or unbelievable revelation, Nancy‘s climactic moment of nuanced epiphany arrives with a platitude. For a woman whose known nothing but rejection as a pariah forever trapped on the fringes of society, a kind word becomes the most treasured gift anyone could ever give. And whether or not this trio lives happily ever after with one another, the result is resonantly joyous because they selflessly bared their souls and were rewarded with love.
Photos Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films