Early on in Nancy, a man named Jeb (John Leguizamo) is meeting Nancy, the film’s central character, for the first time. The two have connected online, and Jeb nervously confesses, “I could be a total creep from the internet for all you know.” And he’s right. But what Jeb doesn’t know is that the audience doesn’t really care whether he’s an internet creep. We’re too busy trying to find out whether or not Nancy is.
Ostensibly, Nancy is about a 35-year-old woman who might be the biological daughter of two parents, Betty and Leo (Ann Dowd and Steve Buscemi), who lost their young child to a kidnapping three decades before. The film doesn’t get into that central plot line until almost a third of the way through its brief 87-minute running time, though. The first third is presumably for exposition and world-building, but we get so little context in the quiet, mostly mundane scenes that even after nearly 30 minutes of peering into Nancy’s life, we still know very little about who this woman really is. Even as Nancy is watching and considering the local news story of Becca, the daughter Betty and Leo lost decades before, it’s impossible to tell whether Nancy thinks it was her or whether she thinks it could be her. Nancy’s slippery nature is easily enough to pull a viewer in to this mysterious story.
Much of the credit for the compelling ambiguity in Nancy goes to writer/director Christina Choe for her careful, restrained storytelling, but the film revolves around the performance of Andrea Riseborough as Nancy. The key to Riseborough’s exceptional work is that you can never tell whether she’s acting or whether Nancy is; despite the fact that Nancy is in essentially every scene in the film, the nature of the character and the performance of the actor are so subtlety controlled that Nancy comes across as carefully guarded whether she’s dying her hair alone in a bathroom, or talking with the private investigator who can and will determine the truth regarding her connection to Betty and Leo.
The real achievement of Nancy isn’t the elusive nature of the main character, though. It’s the way the question at the center of the film shifts from “what’s really true about Nancy’s past?” to “does it matter what’s true about her past?” Does it actually matter which version of this woman is here, given what this small group of people are looking for and asking of one another?
Choe eventually gives her answer to that question, but the satisfaction of that answer will depend on the viewer. But far more interesting is the road to that conclusion. Nancy is a slow burn – particularly for a film of this length – but its subtlety is its power: the movie isn’t dazzling or loud like fireworks, but just like the glowing embers of a campfire, it can absolutely still burn.