Movies 13 October 2018 | 14:31

LFF review: Christina Choe’s ‘Nancy’ is eerily watchable

13 October 2018 14:31

Before its flickering titles, Christina Choe’s Nancy has a big head-start – on the simple grounds that any film starring Andrea Riseborough (Never Let Me Go, Battle of the Sexes, The Death of Stalin) is unlikely to be a dud.

This one most certainly isn’t, and not only because of Riseborough’s compelling performance. Somewhere in upstate New York, Nancy Freeman lives with her mother (Ann Dowd, brilliant as usual) who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and depends upon her daughter as much as she seems to despise her.

Never off her phone, Nancy exists in a wretched limbo between digital fantasy and real-life hopelessness. In a truly disturbing sub-plot, she lures Jeb (John Leguizamo), a bereaved father, into a meeting at a diner by pretending that she has lost a child but is now pregnant again. The ruse does not end well.

The film owes something to the internet imposture genre of Catfish (Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, 2010) and its analogue precursors such as The Night Listener (Patrick Stettner, 2006). At the dentist’s surgery where she works as a temp, she pretends to have visited North Korea on holiday – showing her sceptical colleagues images of the trip that have clearly been photoshopped. At 35, she still paints her greying hair the jet black of a teenaged emo. Her grip upon reality appears frayed at best.

The death of her mother plunges Nancy into a blankness from which she is unexpectedly plucked by a news item about a couple, Leo and Ellen (Steven Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron), who are naming a scholarship after the daughter they lost in a mall thirty years before. A computer-simulated image of what the girl, Brooke, would look like now persuades – or seems to persuade – Nancy that she has stumbled upon the truth about her own identity and, by implication, the root of her misery.

Here, the film shifts up a gear from arthouse anomie to full-blown psychological mystery. Having made tentative contact with Leo and Ellen, Nancy puts her cat, Paul, in a carrier, and drives off to meet them. The collision of her emptiness and their enduring grief makes the film suddenly crackle with nervous energy.

Restored to a sort of spectral maternity, Ellen is quickly enough persuaded that this is indeed her daughter, while Buscemi’s Leo is initially more sceptical. There is fine symbolism in the fact that Brooke was looking at a kitten when she disappeared – and that Nancy frantically chases her own cat when it escapes into the snow, only to be pursued herself, no less desperately, by Ellen, as though emotional pain is fated to metastasise from person to person. Leo, for his part, is allergic to cats.

This is a film about fragmented personalities and the extent to which they can, or cannot, be patched up by convenient fictions. It is also a study of the interactions between suffering and cruelty, and, as such, never less than eerily watchable.