We’ve all probably had that one friend, classmate, colleague, or someone whose brilliance and bright ideas were talked about and admired by everyone around. At one point this person seemed to be the intellectual promise of a generation, and yet, for some inexplicable reason, lost it all. There’s a general belief that madness and brilliance walk together, and even if this questionable correlation doesn’t fully convince me, I still have seen it happen a few times.
Paul (Will Rogers) is possibly one of the most infuriatingly passive heroes I’ve ever seen on the big screen. I insist on calling him the hero of this story, since it’s his paranoid mind that becomes the narrative driving force in Andrew Semans’s feature length debut Nancy, Please. Having just recently moved in with his longtime girlfriend Jen (Rebecca Lawrence Levy), Paul realizes he has forgotten his copy of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit in his old apartment. What initially would seem like nothing more than a simple, mundane problem becomes the catalyst for a spiral of fear and self-destructive paranoia. What stands between Paul and his annotated copy of Charles Dickens’s book is his former roommate Nancy (Eleonore Hendricks), who at first is no more than a mysterious, distant threat as we hear about her crazy antics through Paul’s horror stories from the time they both used to share a flat.
When we are first introduced to Paul, his boyish charm and piercing blue eyes have no trouble winning us over. He’s sympathetic enough, and considering the likely viewership for this type of film, easily relatable. Paul is struggling to write his PhD and verging on being kicked out from his Yale post-graduate program. As his obsession with Nancy increases, his mental state gradually deteriorates to the point of alienating all those around him. Even when his girlfriend goes to a great length to try and solve his problem so that they can finally have their old life together back, it seems to only worsen what has become an inevitable path of self-sabotage and mental breakdown. Even his closest friend Charlie (Santino Fontana), who was fueling Paul’s obsession and helping him to get his book back, finally gives up on him once it becomes clear that his state of mind has reached a point of no return. Ultimately, Paul manages to lose what is left of our own sympathy, be it due to his frustrating inertia or his actually drilling through a squirrel that lives inside his walls.
Similar to the jails depicted in the novel that Paul so desperately needs returned, it’s as if he has built his own mental prison. The film never explores Paul’s past or delves into his neurosis. All we witness are the symptoms: a severe case of writer’s block — that paralyzes Paul and prevents him from writing his PhD — transfigured into an external problem, an outside force that must be dealt with. His delusional mind believes that once he finally gets his hand on the book and confronts Nancy, everything will go back to normal. Even though Nancy, Please works within the genre of psychological horror drama, it borrows heavily from several mumblecore tropes and offers a refreshing take on the genre’s recurrent themes of this generation’s supposed lack of ambition, the refusal to assume adulthood, and the difficulty of finding enough motivation to be productive.
Much like a skilled drummer who knows his place, director Andrew Semans ensures that the technical aspects in Nancy, Please are solid — and at times impressive, — but never overshadow the main storyline. The acting isn’t always up to par, but Eleonore Hendricks is particularly successful in creating a menacing and threatening character from the small portion of screen time in which we actually get to see Nancy. The editing deserves special praise for maintaining the film’s steady pace, taking a hold of viewers’ attention through a narrative build-up that follows the rhythm of Paul’s gradual mental breakdown. Overall, despite a few imperfections, Nancy, Please is a clever indie flick and worthy of attention, especially taking into account that it’s a first time effort by a young director. It’s still early in the year, but depending on the competition, Nancy, Please could very well stand out above the barrage of indie cinema being released and sneak its way onto some 2013 year-end lists.