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You wouldn’t think that a film about a graduate student’s attempts to retrieve his copy of the book Little Dorrit from a former roommate would make for compelling viewing. But Nancy, Please, Andrew Semans’ arresting feature debut receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, turns out to be just that. This subtly engrossing psychological thriller plays like an intellectual version of Fatal Attraction, minus the sex and the dead bunny. And that’s meant as a compliment.
The central character is the mild-mannered Paul (Will Rogers), a Yale PhD student whose unfinished dissertation depends on the notes he wrote in his tattered, hardback edition of Dickens’ classic novel. The problem is that he left it in the house he formerly shared with his roommate/non-girlfriend Nancy (Eleonore Hendricks). When he contacts her to pick it up she’s initially cooperative. But every attempt he makes to do so proves fruitless.
Paul, who’s clearly already on shaky academic ground as evidenced by his tense interactions with his graduate advisor (Novella Nelson), becomes increasingly obsessed and desperate. At first his girlfriend Jen (Rebecca Lawrence) and best friend Charlie (Santino Fontana) try to help, but their patience with his obsession eventually wears thin. “I withdraw my support,” announces the disgusted Jen at one point.
Paul’s attempts to reason with Nancy, who he dubs a “creature of hate,” fail to produce results, with their encounters becoming increasingly hostile. Things escalate even further when Paul, having found an old key to her house, lets himself in one night when he thinks she’s not home and she promptly pummels him with a baseball bat.
Although Nancy is seen only fleetingly for most of the film’s running time, a final confrontation scene provides some depths to her previously baffling motivations while not making her any more likeable.
But likeable is not what the director — working from a smart, darkly funny screenplay co-written with Will Heinrich — is going for. Indeed, the initially sympathetic Paul gradually reveals himself to be an immature screw-up who all too eagerly exploits his current predicament to avoid responsibility for his own failures.
Rogers delivers a perfectly calibrated performance as the slowly unraveling Paul; Hendricks provides just the right touch of ambiguous menace as his adversary; and Lawrence and Fontana are appealing as Paul’s increasingly frustrated support system.
Tribeca Film Festival (Small Coup Films)
Cast: Will Rogers, Eleonore Hendricks, Rebecca Lawrence, Santino Fontana, Novella Nelson, Wally Dunn
Director: Andrew Semans
Screenwriters: Will Heinrich, Andrew Semans
Producers: Vinay Singh, Dave Saltzman
Executive producers: Pawan Singh, Alan Silverstein, Laura Heberton
Director of photography: Eric Lin
Editor: Ron Dulin
Music: Chris White
Production designer/costume designer: Ana Cambre
No rating, 84 min
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