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“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”

[Joan Didion]

In the discovery of new voices, the Asian-American market among female directors seems strangely potent. Between Chloé Zhao (The Rider) and now Christina Choe, there is something remarkable happening in the capacity of these new directors to draw out the melancholy center of our human experience. We’ve know all along that Asian-American filmmakers (e.g. Joon-ho Bong, Ki-duk Kim, Kar-Wai Wong) have this remarkable gift for generating depressed-laced cross-sectional art making even when the topic is mildly entertaining. And now, when we need it most, the art form of drawing out the audience into a state of unapologetic empathy for strangers can again be appreciated.

In Nancy, we find an impeccable performance from Andrea Riseborough in a film about a middle-aged woman surrounded by loss and rejection who in no small measure struggles with her unspoken demons of loneliness—”a quiet, wide-eyed intensity that’s just this side of scary.” She seeks to find a place by relying perhaps unfortunately on the art of dissimulation and yet remains hard not to like inside the wall of her fragility and calm. As Bilge Ebiri  (Village Voice) explains perfectly:

Riseborough’s great accomplishment is anchoring the comic dimension of her character with an undercurrent of gentle melancholy. I say “anchoring” because the sadness both sells and tempers the comedy, turning her from a potential object of ridicule (or pity) into an object of fascination.

Nancy seeks to connect with a family she believes (or not) to be her biological mother and father, in the process finding some semblance of normality if for no other reason than to find a place for a momentary sense of belonging. The family has retained some glimmer of hope for three decades, despite earlier false alarms, the mother remains committed to finding some semblance of her daughter. The father remains skeptical, hoping for the best but being unable to absorb the wide-eyed optimism for too long.

Nancy is an impressive directorial debut, primarily thanks to the performance of Riseborough and the well constructed score from Peter Raeburn that undeniable holds the film together. We saw a similar display of competence from another first time female director (Kathleen Hepburn) with Never Steady, Never Still. And yet, the story is thin and largely unexplored: border lining on a short film instead of a complete project. Character studies need time to develop and without a plot the run time was inadequate to build on what could have easily been an impressive darker role for Riseborough that breaks free from the films inertia. Jeannette Catsoullis (NY Times) summarizes things beautifully: in the end, “what’s left is a strange, sour tale that’s neither origin mystery nor journey of self-discovery, but a vexing gesture toward damage and delusion that never permits us to peek under its broken heroine’s hood.”

Despite its problems, I was taken back by the quality of the film’s dark and sober presentation and found the character created in Riseborough to be among the most interesting I’ve seen this year. The way that Annette Bening carried The Seagull, the way that Charlize Theron carried Tully, so too did Riseborough carry Nancy, and it was well worth the time.



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