Film Review: Who We Are Now

A woman whose life is upended after ten years in prison for vehicular manslaughter tries to regain her child from his guardians, find a decent job and keep the world at arm's length in this idiosyncratic indie with a riveting Julianne Nicholson.
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Actor and four-time feature writer-director Matthew Newton again explores the humanity of social detritus (as he did with undocumented Bronx high-schoolers and a mistreated young Navy man considering going AWOL) in his new film about a once middle-class Brooklyn woman emerging from prison after ten years on a hit-and-run manslaughter charge.

The formidable Julianne Nicholson, one of the producers, reunites with Newton from his 2016 drama From Nowhere, in which she played a teacher dedicated to helping three decent, promising immigrant students obtain critically needed documents in order to remain in the country. Who We Are Now finds her playing a diametrically opposite character—Beth, released early a year ago for good behavior, who desperately wants shared custody of her elementary-school son Alec (Logan Schuyler Smith), whom she entrusted to her sister Gaby (Jess Weixler) and brother-in-law Sam (Scott Cohen) as legal guardians. After a decade, they've long claimed the boy as their own—the child doesn't even know his "Aunt Beth" gave him life—and are frigid to the idea of shared custody.

Working a subsistence-level job in a largely Asian nail salon, living in what seems a rented room, Beth is represented in court by an idealistic but street-savvy public-defender group, The Watchdogs, headed by Carl/Carlos (Jimmy Smits). At a conference, they're blindsided by Gaby and Sam's private attorney (Gloria Reuben), who makes new demands after an agreement had been reached. It's the guardians' ploy to enrage Beth, who has anger-management issues, and set her off in front of witnesses. And while she's self-aware enough to catch herself before it gets too far, she's not enough to catch herself before her anger gets out.

Awkwardly intercut with her story is the journey of Jess McCabe (Emma Roberts), a top Columbia Law School grad and year-long junior litigator at The Watchdogs, whom her boss wants to promote. This panics her, what with her controlling mom (Lea Thompson), a vain actress who'd envisioned grander things for her daughter and must settle for other daughter Monica (Samantha Hill), who's preparing to be married.

It all feels disconnected to Jess' later scenes with Beth, and the disparate ensemble segments actually don't intercut so much as cut away, as if to a different movie. Newton's directing style can result in scenes needlessly long and attenuated, particularly when the fiercely raw and uncompromising Nicholson is not onscreen. His dialogue too often feels like overly naturalistic dithering, as if the actors were told to improvise conversation and Newton kept too loose a rein on them. It's a fault of the filmmaker, too, when shots continue past their purpose: Is it necessary to see every moment of Beth in the nail salon's back room, changing into her work clothes? I understand Newton wants us to show us she's frustrated and impatient, but we've already seen that in Nicholson's expressive face—which with the slightest touch goes from stone-cold stay-away to pissed-off to sizing you up. In her long career, Nicholson often has portrayed magnetically cold, buttoned-up characters, so the quiet depths of Beth's complicated personality are revelatory. Beth is not likeable, largely because she doesn't like herself, and walks on eggshells until she starts stomping those eggshells.

Fused together by Nicholson's can't-look-away performance, Who We Are Now transcends any directorial quirks. And the quality of the cast Newton and company assembled for a low-budget indie film speaks to the esteem in which the filmmaker himself must be held.

Jason Biggs plays a seemingly decent restaurant manger with an amoral Machiavellian streak, and Zachary Quinto a tightly wound Afghan War vet with whom Beth dallies. Grant Shaud, who played the fondly remembered Miles Silverberg on the TV-news sitcom "Murphy Brown," here gives us one of the most realistically rendered New York City judges you'll ever see.

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