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Andrea Riseborough may be the best actress working in film today, but you probably don’t know it. You may have seen her catalyze our modern-day gender politics as Billie Jean King’s love interest in last year’s Battle of the Sexes or steal The Death of Stalin from a half-dozen comic geniuses as the dictator’s hilariously bereaved daughter. You might even remember her flirting with an ingenue role in that weird Tom Cruise space flick Oblivion.
But odds are you didn’t realize all these performances came from the same person. Riseborough is the ultimate shapeshifter, transforming herself into a completely new person with each role, unrecognizable from the last. As such, it’s no surprise that Nancy, a thoughtful character study with Riseborough in the lead role, is her best yet. In the transfixing film by first-time feature director Christina Choe, she plays a woman who lives to lie. Nancy has no center, instead contorting the core details of her life so she can fit in anywhere. It’s a perfect role for an actress of Riseborough’s transformational talents.
Nancy lives with her overbearing mother (Ann Dowd), who is suffering from Parkinson’s and seems intent on making those around her suffer just as much. Stymied by her living situation, Nancy engages in frequent fantasies. She conjures up fake photos of herself on vacation in North Korea to impress her new co-workers (she’s a temp, of course), and puts on a pregnancy suit to connect with a divorcee (John Leguizamo) who recently lost a child. To its credit, the film never tells us how to feel about this. It’s certainly icky—Leguizamo’s tender performance ensures we feel the impact of her deception—but Choe’s tight direction, which rarely strays from Nancy’s point of view, and Riseborough’s sharp, soulful performance guarantee our empathy.
The plot turns when Nancy sees Ellen and Leo, a middle-aged married couple (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi), on the news discussing their daughter, who disappeared 30 years prior. Nancy decides on the spot that she is that daughter, a lie that becomes blurry when she visits with the parents at their home. Ellen is convinced that Nancy is hers. Leo remains open but skeptical. As the three wounded souls spend a few days together, they bond and create a new history, forcing Nancy to either make a life-changing commitment to her deceptive lifestyle, or break from it and lose her first opportunity at a nurturing family.
As the traumatized parents, Smith-Cameron and Buscemi are magnificent. We haven’t seen Buscemi plays a normal person in decades, and it’s both a revelation and a relief. Still, this is Riseborough’s movie and maybe her moment. We’re never quite sure if Nancy’s lie is a full-on delusion, but, regardless, Riseborough’s emotions never seem artificial. She’s deeply moved by her new parents’ kindness—especially when Leo, who is allergic to cats, allows her to bring her feline pet in the house. Despite the lies she subjected us to in the early going, we root for her always. That’s how good Riseborough is.
To some, Nancy might feel too slight for its own good. Even after the film’s tumultuous events, we cannot be certain how much Nancy has actually changed. Then again, that’s life, isn’t it? We put ourselves through hell and can only hope—never be sure—that we’ve learned something from it. In Nancy, Riseborough reflects that process back to us and makes sure we see every bracing, human, and mysterious moment of it.
Nancy opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.