Christina Choe’s Nancy is surely one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. Its subject matter is familiar, dealing with a family who had lost their five-year old daughter to a kidnapper thirty years before, and a woman (the marvelous Andrea Riseborough) who steps forward as a possible solution to the trauma that has hounded their lives ever since. Everything is etched in doubt and ambiguity, since we see an instance of Nancy lying to another person for attention, and her begrudging connection to a mother she later claims might have indeed kidnapped her. She is a haunting revenant of an isolated existence, with a need to belong that seems to consume her from within. Does that need then spill out to the Lynch family, who have been craving for answers for so long that any glimmer of hope will be accepted with open arms? Is Nancy so desperate for connection that she is willing to lie in order to feel the warmth of a strange house? Or is there a firm belief within her that she was snatched away from a promising life at an early age?
Riseborough has a very good instinctual connection with her characters. She plays them without vanity or surfeit, and if it means looking perpetually weary and unkempt, she’ll go for it. That’s why it’s so easy to see her as Nancy—as a timid, wound-up, quiet, despairing flicker of existence. That instinctual nature of her performance fools you into thinking she’s played a version of this character all her life, when in reality she’s shuffled convincingly between so many types. Nancy is only another mask in her arsenal, and it’s worn exceedingly well. One of my most favourite moments is when she begins to cry after an unexpected gesture of acceptance. For much of the film, she remains inscrutable, and it’s difficult to know what emotional torrents are tumbling inside her. Only when her quest for closeness is achieved, and a physical token of affinity is exchanged, does she finally break. It’s a small moment writ large due to Riseborough’s gifted ability to surprise even in a film’s final moments. She is not one to lay down her cards on the table all at once, and we’re all the better for it.
But what really drove this film home for me was its understanding of how internally devastating loneliness can be. The ending’s implication (as I read it) is that, no matter what kind of people unexpectedly drop into your life, if you feel they are worth knowing, then you must try to hold onto them. It doesn’t matter if they are not the people you initially believed they were. It’s better to build those connections than collapse them, for loneliness can be a dire consequence. It is all-consuming, and eradicates the self-worth we try to cultivate. The song is quite right: people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. Because when they find other people, the feeling is like no other.