In sitcoms, no one can lie correctly. Any time a character — presumably through a series of hijinks — is forced into a situation where they, say, have to pretend that they’re a famous Scandinavian art critic, or that they’re in a relationship with someone they’re not, the character flummoxes through it with the subtlety of a water balloon. There’s flop sweat and phony accents and plenty of stuttering (and, in the case of a lie about a romance, a situation in which the two will be forced to publicly kiss, you know, to prove that they’re dating).
That is not the way real people, or Nancy, lie. When she’s describing a trip to North Korea for the benefit of her disinterested co-workers, she does so with blasé indifference and a symbolic shrug. Even when called on the improbability of her claim, Nancy continues to present her version of the truth with a disquieting calm, flipping through fabricated pictures on her phone, letting her imaginations of a fictional version of her life make her real one less unbearable.
And when Nancy sees a couple on the news, still mourning their daughter who disappeared 30 years earlier, Nancy sees an opportunity; her resemblance to the age-progressed picture of the missing girl, Brooke, provides just enough evidence for her to sidle into their lives.
About a third of the way through Nancy, the aspect ratio widens — expanding slowly as the titular character leaves her crumbling, lonely home and begins driving towards the Lynch family. The subtext is obvious: Nancy, with her dead-end temp job and Parkinson’s-suffering mother, had been living in a box, her connection to the outside world limited to rejection letters from literary magazines and friendships with friends online built on false pretense. Leo and Ellen Lynch — with their white-collar jobs and literary sensibilities — offer a glimpse into a larger world.
In another movie, the aspect-ratio trick might have seemed gimmicky, but in the hands of writer and director Christina Choe it is subtle and effective. These two descriptors work equally well when applied to nearly every aspect of the film, which is incredibly Choe’s first.
In the title role, Andrea Riseborough captures the liar’s dichotomy of overconfidence and insecurity. We know that Nancy is a liar, and yet so heartbreaking is her obvious skittishness and need that, at times in watching the movie, you — like Brooke’s mother (J. Smith-Cameron) — just so desperately want her to be their real daughter. The film reunites Riseborough with her Death of Stalin co-star, Steve Buscemi, who plays Brooke’s dad, Leo Lynch, who is kind but skeptical, the necessary foil to his wife Ellen’s no-conditions love.
For such a heartbreaking subject — parents of a lost child taunted with the possibility of that child’s return — Nancy remains restrained, as distant as the character herself. It’s a movie one imagines under a bell jar, frozen and delicate, and protected behind an inch of glass. The film’s scenes pass like vignettes, connected by very chronological time but very little else. It is not a thriller nor even, really, a mystery. Instead, much like a play, it forces you to pay attention to the nuances of each of the actors’ (very well-done) performances, to sit with the characters quietly as if in a sitting room too formal to do much else.