The WUD What Is Family? Film Festival, running all weekend long, presents movies that look at all sorts of configurations of families, whether related by blood (“Three Identical Strangers,” playing at 3 p.m. Sunday) or created (“Skate Kitchen,” playing at 8:30 p.m. Saturday).
Or, in the case of writer-director Christina Choe’s “Nancy,” a family built on a lie. “Nancy” has its Madison premiere at 11 p.m. Saturday at the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1208 W. Dayton St. The screening, like all the screenings at the festival, is free and open to the public.
Nancy Freeman (Andrea Riseborough, last seen also playing a title role in “Mandy”) is a fledgling fiction writer who is told at one point in the film that she “really knows how to tell a story.” Boy, they don’t know the half of it.
Nancy is a serial impostor, habitually lying to make her humdrum life taking care of her mother (Ann Dowd) in a grubby town in upstate New York seem more interesting. She tells her co-workers that she spent her vacation in North Korea and has the (photoshopped) photos to prove it. She writes a blog pretending to be a mother who lost her baby, connecting with real grieving parents, including a father (John Leguizamo) she cons in real life.
Choe keeps us wondering if there’s real malice in her emotional fraud, or if Nancy is so deeply troubled that this is the only way she can connect with people. With her wide eyes and unruly mop of hair, Riseborough’s performance is both affecting and opaque.
One night, Nancy sees a news report about a couple, Ellen and Leo (J. Smith Cameron and Steve Buscemi) whose daughter Brooke went missing 30 years ago and was never found. Brooke would be about as old as Nancy, and the artist rendering of what Brooke would look like today has a strongly resemblance to Nancy.
You can see where this is going. Nancy calls up the mom and suggests she might be her missing daughter.
It’s an awful thing to do, and we feel queasy as Nancy insinuates herself into the lives of these grieving parents, giving them false hope. Leo is more skeptical and hires a private investigator to check out Nancy’s claims, but Ellen is eager to believe.
And the kicker is — Nancy does really look a lot like Brooke, and there’s a part of us that wonders, against all odds, if she really could be their missing daughter. Even though we know her true nature, Nancy’s falsehoods start working on us a little bit. And then Choe gently explores whether these three people could somehow build a family and ease each other’s pain. Even if it is all based on a lie.
The plot of "Nancy" could have formed the basis of a 1990s thriller in the vein of "Single White Female," but Choe is going for spare drama. Zoe White’s bleak wintry cinematography — I don’t think the sun shines once in this entire film — underscores the emotional pain of these characters. “Nancy” hits with the force of a short story, compact and eerie.