One of the discoveries of the 2012 Tribeca Film Fest, Andrew Seman’s first feature “Nancy, Please” (at the reRun Gastropub Theater in Dumbo, May 24-30) takes a crisis in grad school life as the basis for a mock thriller that, depending on your sense of the condition known as OCD, may be experienced as either funny or horrifying.
For students of pathology, the hook is irresistible. After moving in with his girlfriend, a grad assistant at Yale realizes that he has “forgotten” to pack his most treasured possession—an ancient annotated copy of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, which must be retrieved from the young townie from whom he formerly rented a room before he can write his already years overdue dissertation. Paul (Will Rogers) is soft, ineffectual and stubbornly passive, his girlfriend Jen (Rebecca Lawrence) is brisk and not altogether sympathetic, while, unseen for much of the movie, Nancy (Eléonore Hendricks) is a glaring mystery wrapped in a sullen enigma.
Mysterious too is the massive Dickens novel that serves as Seman’s McGuffin: Was it chosen for its vaguely risible title, its prolonged account of debtor’s prison, its overwhelming sense of grievance and bureaucratic futility? The book’s famous tenth chapter begins with a scathing satire of institutional neurosis: “Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand, with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—NOT HOW TO DO IT.” While, as obsessive and fetishistic as its protagonist is, “Little Dorrit” was most likely chosen for some totally private, unknowable reason, it’s easy to see that Paul’s inept, self-defeating attempts to recover his lost property (as he calls it) seemed to be governed by the Circumlocution Office’s procedures.
As a movie, “Nancy, Please” definitely does know how to do it. Semans’s mode is small scale but not quite mumblecore. The acting is disciplined (particularly impressive in that the characters are uniformly unsympathetic) and the timing is carefully worked out with regards to Paul’s slow-motion breakdown. The student’s irrational obsession with his misplaced book, which increasingly appears to be a displaced, and somewhat masochistic, obsession with the dread Nancy, makes for a tense, even nerve racking (if often ridiculous) spectacle. An objective correlative is provided by the Poe-like horror of nesting squirrels that Paul hears in his study walls.
Failure to retrieve becomes failure to launch and then something else. “Nancy, Please” (itself a vaguely risible title) takes us so far into Paul’s solipsistic world that the ending, which reveals something of Nancy’s perspective, is a profound, if quiet, shock.
Images: Factory 25