Monday, June 18, 2018

When Image Isn't Everything But Deception Is

Andrea Riseborough as the title character in Christina Choe's drama "Nancy". Samuel Goldwyn Films  


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, June 18, 2018

Ah, those pesky comedy and drama masks!  Both are on full display in "Nancy", only politely if barely submerged by forced smiles, skepticism and denial.  Tragicomedy is the middle name of Christina Choe's haunting film -- emphasis on comedy.  There's not a single moment in "Nancy" where anyone laughs as I recall, but facial gestures are grand levity in this sometimes unsettling experience. 

As "Nancy" begins a grainy home video of a child unspools.  Who is the child?  Whose video is it?  The most noteworthy thing about this intimate 87-minute exercise are the actors' facial expressions, especially pronounced in this journey of Nancy (Andrea Riseborough), who is an isolated figure.  Nancy, with invisible hand on heart, insists she's been to North Korea -- and by golly she has the photos to prove it, Photoshop be damned. 

"Nancy" is about many things including image and imagery, perception -- how they are constructed -- and by whom.  Ms. Choe's art is serious but its participants are subversive players in a peanut gallery made for laughs.  "You're sick!'" cries one anguished character.  "How did you get inside North Korea?" queries another.   Everyone, from Nancy (Ms. Riseborough is riveting here) to Jeb (John Leguizamo), a man she befriends online, to Leo (Steve Buscemi), whom she meets later on, wears skepticism, awkwardness and doubt like an oversized overcoat of armor.  I waited for any of them to burst out laughing.  Only their tight facial expressions prevent them from doing so. 

Ms. Choe's film is buoyed only by the fine acting of J. Smith-Cameron, who plays the mother of a daughter who has been in the news on and off for many years.  It is with her that "Nancy" provides something of a gaslighting or Rorschach test.  Even the above photo in this review -- at least I thought this at first -- contains what looks like a sideways eyeball on the left-hand side (your right side) of Ms. Riseborough's face.  Take a look now.

More than anything, "Nancy" is a photograph, a faded photograph, one that invites emotional illusions and optical ones.  Characters see what they choose to see regardless of reality.  Belief, they say, is a powerful thing.  In "Nancy" loneliness and the need to connect may be even more powerful.  People so desperately want to get close to each other but just don't want to make it too obvious.  All of this is what professional actors love: the art of deception and belief in it by an audience.  Every character is an actor shedding masks and putting on new ones.

For the record, Nancy has an overactive imagination, to say the least.  Cue another of this film's in-jokes: Nancy is a writer.  From New Jersey.  Her dreams have gone unfulfilled.  Could it be that the swamp in the Garden State is responsible?  Or did Bridgegate detour Nancy's creative juices into oblivion?  There is much quiet and inescapable comedy amidst the edgy confines of "Nancy" but the title character just about keeps a straight face.  Dedicated to the last, Nancy takes care of her rapidly dissembling mother (Ann Dowd) who declares to her closed-off daughter that "you can still have a baby."  Comedy, comedy, comedy.

Nancy has a dentistry job (smile!); its office has a sign that reads something like, "if you don't take care of your teeth they will go away."  Now that's comedy.  The thing about "Nancy" is, its silent comedy is so self-aware, self-evident like a tautology.  Yet "Nancy" is also grim truths and tension percolating into a primal scream of denial.  "Nancy"'s aural anthem is abandonment, a persistent alarm bell in this film, which Ms. Choe wrote and Ms. Riseborough co-produced.  Fear is embedded into the fabric too: fear of failure, fear of completion or barreness. 

Sometimes the imbroglios of these troubled souls on Ms. Choe's wintry canvas are so achingly human but because "Nancy" as a cinematic work is so cool and ritualistically episodic many scenes don't have appreciable time to be fully absorbed beyond their surface.  I think Ms. Choe designed her film this way -- to leave threads tangled, or is that untangled? -- and to leave characters not enjoying or not yielding fully to hugs from others.  No comfort allowed!  But comedic escapism is welcome, shrouded in winks, nods and fleeting, tentative attempts at smiles.

It should be said that only Ms. Smith-Cameron flaunts a range of emotions in "Nancy" that elevate the film to places it probably hasn't the right to go.  Ms. Smith-Cameron, a venerable, brilliant Broadway actor, has previously traversed related terrain on the big screen in the resonant epic drama "Margaret".  Her poise, intelligence and awareness are part of the full spectrum of her work in "Nancy" and is its brightest and best asset.

A Sundance Film Festival entry in January, "Nancy" showcases the deceivers and the deluded and also asks us which, if any, we are more comfortable with.  Nancy herself isn't one with mental illness, I believe.  Sure, it may be "crazy" to do what she does but "Nancy" is not about a crazy woman or about mental illness.  That would be too convenient.  Above all I still can't shake those subversions.  There's even a figurative welcome mat for cats -- cats, as a mocking stereotype assigned to single or lonely women of any age, especially women of a certain age.  When Nancy's cat Paul escapes into the night the comedy is laid on thick when one character reassures her: "don't worry, they always come back."

Also with: T. Sahara Meer, Virginia Kull, Samrat Chakrabarti.

"Nancy" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  (If it were rated I would rate it PG-13 for thematic elements.)  The film's running time is one hour and 27 minutes.

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