Tribeca 2012: ‘Nancy, Please’ disguises its potent psychodrama as graduate ennui

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Nancy, Please
Written by Andrew Semans and Will Heinrich
Directed by Andrew Semans
USA, 2011

No subject is more over-represented in American indies than graduate (or post-graduate) stasis, so it’s only natural to approach Andrew Semans’s feature directorial debut, Nancy, Please, with extreme cynicism. Thankfully, despite the fact that it revolves around a graduate student’s attempt to complete his thesis – or, more accurately, the means by which he does anything but attempt to complete it – Semans’s film is more a darkly comic psychodrama than an aimless defense of navel-gazing.

Paul (Will Rogers) has a problem, but it’s one he immediately misidentifies. He’s already months behind on his dissertation on Charles Dickens’s Little Dorritt when he loses his self-annotated copy – he’s left it behind at his former apartment, in the care of a notoriously unstable girl named Nancy (Elenore Hendricks). To the chagrin of his impossibly patient girlfriend Jen (Rebecca Lawrence), Paul remains stubbornly fixated on getting his book back, even while Nancy dodges all of his calls and is generally evasive to the point of perversity. Egged on by his friend Charlie (Santino Fontana), who seems to live vicariously through Paul’s misadventures, Paul ultimately ramps up a campaign of aggression directed at Nancy.

At its core, Nancy, Please is about fear, but not of the sort generally trafficked about in conventional horror films. Paul’s not afraid of some external threat to his life or livelihood, nor even Nancy; he’s merely terrified of failure and rejection. Before he even knows the book is missing, he’s already dodging inquiries by his graduate advisor (Novella Nelson) about the progress of his dissertation, and one of his first pieces of dialogue references Nancy and her antisocial tendencies – an off-hand reference that suggest a pre-existing interest in Nancy, barely laying dormant. Paul’s transgressions over the course of the film are the clear work of a man whose “life of the mind” may very well have run its course, and the fact of his inadequacy has become too much for him to bear.  While his actions betray other psychological undercurrents – misogyny, especially – fear is the common denominator.

The principal difficulty of making Nancy, Please work is that, as written, Paul is a totally insufferable figure – obsessive, petulant, wilfully ignorant, and self-centered. Thanks to Will Rogers, though, he’s also a strangely fascinating one. Aided by some unsettling sound design (particularly in the recurring appearances of nesting squirrels scampering behind the walls), a consistently effective ambeint soundtrack, and a well-placed dream sequence involving a paper bag filled with children’s hearts, Rogers and Semans fashion a detailed, just-scrutable-enough portrait that constantly compels and repels in equal measure. If anything, Paul is so vividly realized that those around him suffer by comparison, especially Lawrence’s Jen, who takes far too long to tire of Paul’s pychosis.

On another level, Nancy, Please functions as a probably-inadvertent autocritique of the female-centric psychodrama, in which hysterical women conspire to destroy the lives of men and families in order to satisfy some base requirement. Nancy’s been fashioned by Paul into a being of liquid spite, a sort of manic pixie nightmare girl, but the truth, as seen in the film’s potent final confrontation, does nothing to absolve Paul of his sins.

Simon Howell

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