She’s the one that got away, but not in the way you’d think in Andrew Seman’s debut, Nancy, Please, an entertaining little jaunt of a film that manages to use its singularly structured point of view to give us something new concerning the plight of the privileged, white man-child. Overriding its own one note nature to give us an acerbic tale of arrested development, Semans, who also co-wrote with first time writer Will Heinrich, proves to be an adept storyteller, even if not quite everything about his debut is successful. But you may be surprised at whose perspective you align yourself with come the film’s final frames.
Yale PhD student Paul (Will Rogers) has recently moved in with his longtime girlfriend, Jen (Rebecca Lawrence) after what seems to have been an unpleasant experience as a roommate to a young woman named Nancy (Eleanor Hendricks). While the unpleasantness is only hinted at, Paul describes Nancy as “worse than Hitler.” Meanwhile, Paul’s graduate advisor (Novella Nelson), is becoming increasingly impatient with his continual neglect at furnishing her with his going on two year dissertation on Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit. She has granted him one last deadline to bring her some material, which Paul seems all geared to finally get started on when he realizes that he left his copy of the novel at Nancy’s. And the whole basis of his thesis has been scribbled in the copious notes he’s written in that particular volume.
The extremely busy Nancy seems ambivalent to Paul’s insistent phone calls, but agrees to give him back the volume. However, Paul’s impatience at Nancy’s lackadaisical response involves Jen stepping into visit Nancy at the restaurant where she waitresses, which results in a hostile interaction from the generally hateful and unpleasant Nancy. Paul is convinced that he can’t even begin to sit down and start working on his dissertation until he gets a look at those notes, and it’s not long before his irritation at not receiving his book turns into a full-fledged obsession. But prickly Nancy is not amused, and their already tense relationship is soon a full blaze war of wills.
Who would’ve thought so much drama would hinge on something as harmless as Little Dorrit? Of course, one could tease out a possible subtext here, as Dickens’ novel, which explores the separation of classes and their lack of intermingling, is also a template that you can plug privileged Yale student Paul and working class waitress Nancy (who works six days a week to pay her mother’s medical bills) into. It’s easy to see why Nancy would be so bitterly unapproachable to the pretentious and sentient Paul, who uses Nancy’s social slight as a reason to avoid his own responsibilities. At first his girlfriend and grad buddy friend Charlie (Santino Fontana) are staunchly supportive of Paul, but it dawns on them (and us) that Paul is clearly trying to place the blame for his lack of success on anyone but himself.
As Paul’s support system crumbles, so do his problem solving skills, which involve a series of poorly made choices (stabbing a squirrel through the wall; attempting to break into Nancy’s while she’s at home). The cluster of squirrels living in the Paul and Jen’s walls, perhaps a metaphor for the nagging problems scratching at his own insides, also provides us one of the film’s most comical sequences.
Nancy is never quite developed as a character, and she doesn’t need to be. She’s on the outskirts of most of her scenes, never quite fully a fury until a final confrontation, which actress Eleanor Hendricks, who may share the same stylist as Clea Duvall, plays quite perfectly. We’ve come to distrust Paul and his point of view, so some of her behaviors, like an ear piercing scream, may not even be happening, but even if she remains unlikeable, our intimate knowledge of the pathetic Paul makes her behavior understandable (even forgivable).
Not all of Nancy, Please feels quite successful (and some may find Seman’s treatment of Paul a bit too subdued), but there’s a gleeful glint of menace unspooling throughout most of the film’s running time. Unfortunately, much of the film looks unremarkable, and Eric Lin’s cinematography hardly captures any sort of collegiate essence, meaning the fact that it is set at Yale is related to us through verbal confirmation. Novella Nelson is always a welcome presence, and more of her patient but curmudgeonly Dr. Bannister would have been more than welcome.