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Kidnapping Andrea Riseborough

by Erin Blackwell

Andrea Riseborough as the title character in director Christina Choe's "Nancy." Photo: Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
Andrea Riseborough as the title character in director Christina Choe's "Nancy." Photo: Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films  

Andrea Riseborough is a marvelous actress. She's one of those chameleons who can be anybody, given the right makeup, costume, and script. In 2008 she was both Margaret Thatcher in "The Long Walk to Finchley" and Angelica Fanshawe in "The Devil's Whore." The second film is not about Thatcher. Now she plays a lost soul somewhere in this godforsaken country trying to eke out a lifestyle by pretending to be whatever it is strangers are looking for. The prospect of seeing her in a new independent film exploring the paradox of identity in an age of slippery online personae makes me so happy. "Nancy" opens Friday at Opera Plaza.

Nancy lives alone with her aged mother, who has Parkinson's, in a nondescript but comfortable house. Nancy has an orange cat named Paul and temps at an office where the staff get on her nerves. We know this because she looks at them funny in many silent, lingering close-ups. First-time director Christina Choe seems not to realize that one can have too much of a good thing, or even a bad thing. Too many listless close-ups of Riseborough's eyes, for example. They are huge, almond-shaped, and soulful, a redoubtable cinematic weapon. Here, however, their affect is unremittingly blank, bleak, or cringing.

Choe, who also wrote the script, does not trust the audience's power to assimilate plot. She introduces one narrative element at a time as if narrative elements were a novelty unknown to us. Hers is a linear approach, which might work if her images had depth or gravitas. The only thing they have is Nancy's discomfort in her own skin, her inability to be herself, and her disdain for those in her immediate vicinity. So far, so good. Riseborough catches the angst perfectly. She's an Edward Gorey waif grown to womanhood while retaining an adolescent frame. Even the big brown wig on her head infantilizes her.

Snippet follows snippet illustrating the limits of Nancy's dead end life with Mother (Ann Dowd) until finally a subplot beckons involving John Leguizamo as a man whose child has died. After a brief online exchange, Nancy makes herself look pregnant to meet him in a coffee shop, where he seems entranced by the identity she's chosen to entrance him with. Next comes the tidy, painless, invisible death of the mother. Like a sick old cat, she simply vanishes. Then Choe inexplicably curtails the promising subplot, the audience's one hope for complication and conflict, leaving her morose heroine alone in an empty house.

At minute 22, Nancy sees a TV news story about a child kidnapped age 5, whose loving parents are still hoping she's alive 30 years later. Wait! Nancy is 35 years old. She could be that child! So she phones the house, speaks to the mom, packs the cat in the car and drives for hours. Everything that's gone before is a character sketch and everything from here on in is either an exercise in con artistry, existential brinksmanship, or, who knows?, that million-to-one shot that pays off. Maybe Nancy really was kidnapped: it'd explain so much! And these people have a far nicer house and education level than the hag who just died.

For the next hour we watch frail, pale, sad sack Nancy shamble around a well-appointed country house with her maybe mom and dad. Steve Buscemi is distant and interrogative, but J. Smith-Cameron is huggy and willing to believe. These characters never progress beyond a thumbnail sketch as Choe tippy-toes around the sinkhole that is Nancy's arrival. Incipient emotional tangles remain unexplored as their saliva swabs are processed for DNA. No one loses their cool or speaks out of turn. Not to spoil the end for you, but it doesn't justify sitting through the beginning and middle. "Nancy" is an 80-minute dud.

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