Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) is an aspiring writer and a practiced liar. Weaving fiction, on or off the page, allows her a temporary escape from the dreariness of life in her wintry Northeastern town, where she looks after her scowling, ailing mother (Ann Dowd) and works as a temp in a dental office. Her stories have been read only by editors at publications like the Paris Review, who have sent back a steady stream of rejection letters. Her lies, at least, ensure her a few moments with a captive audience.
The audience for Christina Choe’s “Nancy,” a character study that itself possesses the narrative economy and lingering resonance of a short story, will not be so easily fooled. Nancy’s compulsive dishonesty is evident early on, when she tells her coworkers about her recent visit to North Korea, backing up her claim with a few digitally altered photos. The deeper mystery here concerns her motivation. It’s not clear what she hopes to get, exactly, out of leading an online acquaintance (John Leguizamo) to believe she’s pregnant, beyond a brief moment of power or agency.
Looking pale and wide-eyed beneath a stringy mass of black-dyed hair, Riseborough, a gifted British chameleon, tamps down the natural radiance she has evinced in movies such as “Battle of the Sexes.” The key to this tricky, sometimes boldly alienating performance is that Nancy doesn’t seem to know why she does what she does. She never seems to have an elaborate deception or endgame in mind; her inventions flow, curiously, from a poverty of imagination rather than an excess of it. She’s feeling her way through, one falsehood at a time, in the slim hope that one of them might open a window onto a richer, fuller or at least more interesting life.
Early on in “Nancy,” you might find yourself thinking something similar about the movie. It’s easy enough to stay involved with Nancy — she thwarts our sympathy but not our fascination — but the emptiness of her existence is dramatized through a kind of indie-miserablist shorthand. Her devotion to her pet cat aside, nary the slightest hint of joy or beauty is allowed to brighten the cramped, squalid home where Nancy lives or the dead-end strip mall where she works. Choe, working with cinematographer Zoë White, frames the early scenes using a square aspect ratio, putting emotional constriction into visual terms.
Eventually, however, the frame widens and Peter Raeburn’s score surges intriguingly to life, signaling a dramatic shift from the studiously dour to the quietly affecting. Not long after her mother dies of a stroke, Nancy sees a long-married couple, Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron, “Margaret”) and Leo (Steve Buscemi), talking on TV about the tragedy of losing their daughter, Brooke, who was 5 when she mysteriously vanished 30 years earlier.
A photo rendering of what Brooke might look like today stirs something in Nancy. The resemblance between them is striking enough that … well, you can see where this is going. Within hours of calling Ellen and claiming she might be their long-lost Brooke, Nancy is in the couple’s home, dining with them and even spending the night.
Ellen embraces Nancy warmly and completely; it takes her no time to believe that her daughter has returned to her. Leo is patient but more skeptical, and he warns Nancy that he hopes this doesn’t turn out to be a “false alarm.” As for Nancy herself, she’s the most wishy-washy of fabulists, looking blank and uncertain as she steps into Leo and Ellen’s beautiful home, full of books and food and love. Her answers to their gently probing questions feel vague and half-formed, keeping the illusion going while leaving plenty of room for doubt.
There are a lot of ways to read Nancy’s hesitation, and Riseborough quietly, maddeningly suggests each one of them in turn, each time forcing us to reconsider the urge to shake her out of her stupor. You wonder if the sudden exposure to so much warmth and acceptance has sent her into shock, or if any feeling has even managed to penetrate her benumbed state. You wonder too if Nancy simply isn’t bright enough to have fully thought through the details of her deception, or if she is starting to believe it herself.
And despite knowing better, you may want to believe it too, if only to spare Leo and Ellen further pain. Choe elicits wonderfully expressive, lived-in performances from Cameron and Buscemi, whose characters’ surpassing decency and dignity immediately awaken our protective instincts — and turn us at times against Nancy for manipulating their fragile sympathies, and not even doing an especially good job of it.
There is something almost dialectical about the contrast between the parents on one hand and Nancy on the other, between Cameron and Buscemi’s open, guileless performances and Riseborough’s flat, affectless line readings. There’s an obvious class divide too that the characters awkwardly attempt to bridge. (In an especially bittersweet irony, Ellen, a professor of comparative literature, kindly encourages Nancy’s writing aspirations, even asking to read some of her stories.)
It’s hard not to take one side against the other, even if the movie scrupulously abstains from doing so. Rather than defaulting to either condemnation or absolution, “Nancy” instead holds out the fleeting possibility of love to someone who has never known it before — and asks why we should begrudge her the impulse to seize it.
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles