Anybody else have an actor or actress that they really like, and know is extremely talented, but have never seen in a properly good film or, if they have appeared in a properly good film, been perpetually undervalued and underserved by them? That one you’re hoping against hope one day gets the chance to come good so you don’t feel like a crazy person for constantly hyping them up as the best part of otherwise bad movies? I have quite a few, Elle Fanning being the one I have underlined in block-capitals with red ink (although I admittedly have yet to see 20th Century Women), but the most relevant to this piece is Andrea Riseborough. Ever since turned up in the thankless role of Michael Keaton’s midlife-crisis girlfriend in Birdman back in 2014, she’s been cropping up in minor similarly-thankless roles of seemingly everything that I either really liked (The Death of Stalin, Black Mirror) or was majorly disappointed by (Battle of the Sexes, Nocturnal Animals, Mindhorn). Her work opposite Emma Stone in the best parts of Battle of the Sexes especially hammered into me the belief that she’s a major talent who was growing increasingly overdue a meaty role that would let her finally show off her talents fully instead of just being hired for her ethereal facial features (which the prior-covered Mandy made full usage of and absolutely none of her other talents).
So, it brings me great pleasure to announce that somebody has finally given Riseborough the opportunity to shine. First-time writer-director Christina Choe casts her as Nancy, a 35 year-old woman living with her ill mother (Ann Dowd) in the middle of nowhere. She can’t get proper work, has no life outside of Mom and cat, called Paul, and her Mom is implied to have been verbally abusive throughout her life. But before you go developing too much sympathy for her, Nancy is also a pathological liar who ritually abuses the trust of others in order to try and force connections with other people that might fill up the hole in her life she otherwise spends glued to her phone. At her temp position, she brags about going on holiday to North Korea in an attempt to seem cool and even has the obviously doctored photos to display as evidence. Far more problematically, she’s also been using her talents as a writer to blog about a fake pregnancy and keeps up the ruse when she meets someone (a cameoing John Leguizamo) in person who has found comfort in her lies.
When he discovers the truth behind her facade, he calls her “disturbed,” although Choe’s screenplay doesn’t go that far or pin a specific mental disorder to Nancy. It’s clear that when Nancy lies, she’s doing so in an attempt to pretend she’s living the life she desperately wants – she’s never been out of the country because her mom lost the birth certificate required to let her get a passport, she fakes a pregnancy because she’s had problems conceiving before (or never been in a committed-enough relationship to try). And this information, both the acts themselves and her rationale for doing so, is important because it’s what makes her next act so complicated. After her mother finally succumbs to Parkinson’s, Nancy sees a news report on the television commemorating the 30th anniversary of the disappearance of the daughter of Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron) and Leo Lynch (Steve Buscemi). Through a combination of little details about her past she feels don’t add up and an artist’s mock-up of what the missing girl would look like 30 years on resembling her to scary degree, Nancy becomes convinced that she is the Lynch’s kidnapped daughter.
Now, Choe’s decision to make Nancy a demonstrable liar seems like a needless attempt to pump up a simple story with moral greyness that Serious Dramas are so enamoured by. But in practice it proves a masterstroke because it forces the viewer to disconnect just enough from Nancy in favour of empathising more with the Lynchs, to be fully aware of the turmoil Nancy is putting them through. Ellen desperately wants it to be true and can’t help but give herself over to Nancy before the DNA test results come in, especially when Nancy shares Ellen’s passion for writing and relates aspects of her memory that seemingly only Ellen’s daughter would know. Leo remains more defensive and sceptical, partly due to his nature as a psychiatrist but primarily due to them both going through a similar situation 20 years earlier that turned out to be a false alarm.
Nancy’s actions, if she is entering into this action in bad faith, are abhorrent and emotional terrorism on her part. Taking advantage of the blinding grief of people whose scars and wounds have yet to heal in order to grasp at the life and parental relationship she wishes she had. But the waters are muddied by Nancy herself so desperately wanting it to be true, both thanks to her past and those little nagging details that don’t make other logical sense, that not only is she blind to the damage she’s causing but she may also truly believe it. That in the temporary absence of an evidential truth, this is the truth to her. Our memories at such a young age are quite fallible and trauma can muddy the details to a degree that one can become resolute in their truth being absolute.
That sounds like the makings of a pointed political commentary, but Nancy thankfully ignores such a track in favour of remaining an intimate, gruelling, and emotionally complex character piece of great skill and trust in its actors. Trust that is completely earned as all three are excellent. Buscemi gets the thinnest character to play comparatively, which is to be expected since someone needs to be the emotionally-distant sceptic, but he brings a weariness and deep-seated pang of hurt that’s not as scabbed over as Leo would like to claim. Riseborough sinks her teeth into the extremely difficult title role and pulls it off with aplomb; Nancy is never fully knowable but not in a way that loses the character’s thread or pushes the viewer too far away (going right up to the line then pulling us right back again). But it’s Smith-Cameron who gets the showier and most emotional material in a devastating turn as a woman who knows that she shouldn’t hope this easily but is too heartbroken to not grab tightly onto that speck regardless. She’s so good that the question of whether Nancy is the biological daughter she lost almost becomes irrelevant, Nancy never feeling the need to conclusively spell it out either way.
Nancy is an assured and heavy debut that asks a lot of its audience but is composed and nuanced enough in its emotions, in its characters, and in its storytelling to pull through. Aside from a score by Peter Raeburn that over-eggs the pudding with booming ominous choirs, this is a heck of a calling card for Christina Choe and a long-overdue moment of Andrea Riseborough coming good.