2018, NR, 87 min. Directed by Christina Choe. Starring Andrea Riseborough, J. Smith-Cameron, Ann Dowd, John Leguizamo, Steve Buscemi.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 29, 2018
When the story is told of the cuckoo in the nest, everyone thinks about the innocent baby birds thrown out to make space for the interloper, or the cuckoo who laid the egg, or the birds left raising someone else’s offspring. No one ever thinks about what’s going through the baby cuckoo’s head.
Nancy Freeman (Riseborough) is dislocated from life, a talented but unskilled writer who never got a break, daughter to a woman (Dowd, continuing a year of outstanding supporting performances that runs through The Handmaid's Tale, American Animals, and Hereditary) who depends on her, but can seemingly scarcely tolerate the way she drifts through life. When her mom dies, suddenly if not unexpectedly, Nancy becomes quickly convinced that she is not Nancy Freeman, but Brooke Lynch, a young girl who disappeared on a shopping trip 30 years previously. Now Nancy turns up at still-grieving parents Leo and Ellen Lynch's house, saying she may be the missing part of their lives.
British actress Riseborough (Oblivion, Birdman) disappears into Nancy, playing her with the grimy demeanor of a crumpled, discarded nylon parka. That’s a reflection of her firm belief that she was a castoff as much as a changeling, out of place and unwanted by the woman that raised her. Her penchant or addiction to tragic narratives is deep in her. She’s caught in one major lie by Jeb (Leguizamo), who managed to fall into her orbit online, and the audience’s trust in her is quickly crumpled. But just because something seems extraordinary, does not mean it's untrue. Riseborough keeps even her strangest traits and stories plausible, an essential anchor to keep this potentially – and it's always potentially – unreliable narrator sympathetic.
But Nancy’s dark appeal is not just in Riseborough’s remarkable performance. It’s in how Leo (Buscemi) catches himself saying “you,” and corrects himself to talk about what he and Brooke did before she disappeared. It’s in how Ellen (Smith-Cameron, burying grief in blind hope) is so eager to believe that this strange, sad-eyed woman is her missing baby, miraculously returned to her. It's also in the deft and somber touch of first-time feature writer/director Christina Choe. She evokes the pained compassion of Atom Egoyan at his finest, neither maudlin nor absurd, even when the material seems fantastical. Her story is of people searching for a few rays of hope in the depths of their own tragedies – even if a little bit of self-delusion is what that takes to get through the day.