It wasn’t so long ago that the concept of an “online persona” didn’t even exist. Before the Internet, maintaining a false identity was far more complex; it also came with greater consequences. Now, anyone can pick up their smartphone and pretend to be someone else entirely. When you combine the allure of adopting a new persona with mental illness, the results can be devastating. In Christina Choe’s drama, Nancy (2018), we see a young woman spiral into delusion after inhabiting the persona of a middle-aged couple’s long-lost daughter.
Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) is a lonely young woman who passes her time creating elaborate identities on the Internet. She becomes addicted to the positive attention and adoration from strangers who believe her stories. However, on the rare occasion that she tries to meet her “fans” in real life, it doesn’t always go as planned. When Nancy finds a couple whose baby daughter went missing 30 years prior, she sees a perfect opportunity to satisfy her thirst for attention and misguided affection.
As the three strangers try to get to know each other better and adjust to their bizarre new circumstances, her “parents” start to have doubts about Nancy’s Story. Desperate to have their daughter back, they are inclined to believe her story, even if they know it might not be true. As Nancy sees the life that could have been with her new parents, the delineation between fiction and reality blur. Nancy is alone in the world, but her new parents offer a chance to find meaning and happiness.
Nancy draws some of its inspiration from Jonathan Glazer’s 2004 drama, Birth, in which a young boy appears to Anna (Nicole Kidman), claiming to be her deceased husband, Sean. In both films, we (the audience) find ourselves echoing the confusion of the protagonists. Is this stranger telling the truth, or are they just trying to take advantage of people caught in the throes of loss and heartbreak?
If you’re looking for clear explanations, Nancy is probably not the film for you. In a world where anyone can pose as someone else, reality itself is up for debate. Despite its relatively straightforward plot, Nancy is a timely story, reflecting many of the most pressing issues that our society faces. We exist in two entirely different planes; online, we are one person, and in the “real world,” we are someone else. This fracture of personal identity affects every facet of our lives, from politics to interpersonal relationships.
As relevant as Nancy is, it also tells a story that does not apply to everyone, insofar as Nancy is a deeply disturbed young woman. She finds her reality so repulsive that she needs to invent new ones, with each subsequent reality failing to fill the void in her life. When Nancy finally discovers a reality that matches her deepest, most personal desires, she wants to stay forever.
At one point or another, we have all had the fleeting desire to pick up and start anew. The prospect of shedding our existing baggage and adopting an entirely new life is tempting, but Nancy doesn’t stop there. Her new lives are the lives of someone else; someone who may or may not exist anymore. When she takes on the persona of a long-lost daughter, Nancy takes her delusion to a dangerous new level, threatening the peace and happiness of a bereft family.
While some may find the vague storytelling a bit frustrating, it is actually one of the film’s greatest achievements. A lesser director would have burdened the story with heavy-handed exposition, but Christina Choe navigates the complexity of fractured identity and delusion with near-perfect execution. Andrea Riseborough also performs admirably as the bizarre, morally-ambiguous protagonist. Rather than embellishing her character’s neuroses, Riseborough takes a hands-off approach, giving the audience room to interpret the film as they wish.
In short, Nancy is an excellent film that tells a complex, yet timely story. The ambiguity may be frustrating at times, but the solid direction and performances more than makeup for its shortcomings. If you’re looking for an interesting and altogether unique drama, Nancy is well-worth your time.
Rating: ★★★★ out of 5
If you’d like to watch Nancy (2018), it is currently available to stream, rent, or purchase via Amazon here.
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