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WHO WE ARE NOW (2018) review

June 2, 2018

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written by: Matthew Newton
produced by: Ray Bouderau, Varun Monga and Matthew Newton
directed by: Matthew Newton
rated: unrated
runtime: 95 min.
U.S. release date: May 25, 2018 (limited) and June 1, 2018 (Facets Multimedia, Chicago, IL)

 

The reason I wanted to see “Who We Are Now” was because Julianne Nicholson has a starring role in it – and, as it turns out, she’s the main reason to see the latest independent film from writer/director Matthew Newton. The typically phenomenal actress is captivating in every frame in this absorbing story that touches on redemption and sacrifice in a sensitive and authentic manner. She’s not the only reason to see this film, since she’s surrounded by a fine cast, all of whom portray complex characters. The appropriately named film is populated by people who seem familiar, people we may know, ones who have difficult choices to make as they come to terms with what has transpired in the past and in the present. 

The film primarily follows Beth (Nicholson), an ex-con recently released from a ten-year prison sentence for manslaughter. While she was incarcerated, her younger sister, Gabby (Jess Weixler, “Teeth”), has raised her young son after Beth signed off custody from a hospital bed, thinking she will reunite with him upon her release. Since then, Gabby and her husband have become parents to the boy, explaining Beth as the aunt who visits infrequently. Now that she’s out, she is working with Carl (Jimmy Smits) a pro-bono lawyer to get her son back, while serving up mannies and peddies at a local salon. It’s not going to be easy, considering Gabby has the child’s best interest in mind and Beth has a tendency to be somewhat unpredictable.

 

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It’s going to be an uphill battle for Beth, with the biggest hurdle being herself and the situation she is in. Her frustration simmers underneath a weary and impatient exterior, manifesting itself during unfortunate and inopportune moments, like the discharge of a zit splattering on a mirror. Her anger is legitimate, yet what comes out of Beth’s mouth often prevents her from getting where she wants to be in life and the same can be said for desperate and impulsive actions.

Jess (Emma Roberts) is a young idealistic attorney employed at the legal aid group where Carl works, and although she graduated third in her class from Columbia, she has a lot to learn. When we meet her she is defending Maria (a heartbreaking Camila Perez) an imprisoned teenage Latina mother with a violent streak who barely speaks any English. Her enthusiastic civil-minded duties have alienated Jess from her family, specifically her materialistic mother, Alana (Lea Thompson), a relationship which is already strained. While she may have good intentions, she will have to re-examine her approach to counseling her client and deliberating her work when she decides to take on Beth’s case after the opposing counselor (Gloria Reuben) calls for full custody.

How these two women, Beth and Jess, meet up is interesting and far from forced or predictable. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing forced and predictable in “Who We Are Now”, in which writer/director Matthew Newton focuses on potent character interactions where multiple lines overlap, as if an appreciation of both Cassavettes and Altman. Some plot points may feel obvious, but how they are acted and shot wind up being far from eye-rolling for viewers. The acting across the board is excellent, yet what I left most grateful for is how exposition free “Who We Are Now”. Nothing is explained to us. Only when Beth or Jess divulge or confess to someone else do we here more of their backstory, which in turn speaks to who they are now. Newton, along with his cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen (who lensed last year’s “Mr. Roosevelt”) and editor Betsy Kagen (who worked on Newton’s last film “From Nowhere”, which also starred Nicholson), is more concerned with observing than explaining, which can be seen in how intuitively and unobtrusively the camera is placed and in what behavior is captured.

 

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From the moment “Who We Are Now” starts, it’s clear this is a film with complex emotions, where much is buried or simmering underneath an exterior that has become used to projecting a strong or cordial persona. This can be seen in the first ten minutes of the film when Beth shows up at her sister’s door unannounced on a snowy New York City afternoon. It’s clear the situation is not easy for either or them and yet the are projecting much less than they actually feel, which is how it is when we don’t want to lose our cool or be completely vulnerable for fear of hurting or being hurt. That opening scene is the first of many authentic and true moments that focus on real situations and it lets the audience know that watching Nicholson do her thing is going to be a real treat.

Beth is a fascinating character because Nicholson is playing her. Sometimes an actor will capture a role they are playing so perfectly that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing that character. That’s what’s happening here. Her laser focus, her pain and grief is palpable, and although much of her life situation is due to her own bad choices, at no point do we not want things to work out for her. If she would only get out of her own way.

This can be felt when we witness her attempt to land a waitressing job during an interview with a manager (Jason Biggs), where she leans in and explains to him she will “do anything” for the position. This is followed by an unfortunate scene with the two of them in the restaurant washroom. Later on, when Beth sees the manager on the street with who she assumes is a new hire, we cringe for her, knowing what she chose to do to supposedly secure the job and for how she’s about to respond. Beth has a tryst with a local barfly (Zachary Quinto, like we’ve never seen him), which comes across like an outlet for her. The next morning when he offers his number, she declines, knowing full well what they shared was and who she is. There are indications that this bearded guy has his own suffering, likely trauma from a recent stint in Iraq, which may explain why these two loner-type, potentially volatile characters connect. In her interactions with both of these supporting male characters (however brief), it is a wonder to see Nicholson navigate the internal thought process of what Beth is doing.

There are several scenes in that I just wanted to rewind and rewatch, just to take in the brilliance of the acting and how the dialogue is delivered. It’s not so much that the dialogue is great, it’s fine – it’s just that these characters resonate with such a tangible relatability.

Much transpires between that opening scene and the closing shot of a somewhat resolute Beth, and we wind up feeling somewhat exhausted and relieved after all that she’s been through. For some, the decision she eventually makes alongside Jess, who is now her representing attorney, may seem like a quick change and for others it may be predictable, but I for one was glad to see an almost peaceful aura come over Beth, like a weight had been lifted. No, I’m not giving anything away. In fact, I’m being purposefully vague, but when we see her walking down the sidewalk with a new resolve in her step, there is indeed a sense of relief and hope.

While it’s tough to have empathy for a character like Beth, especially since she doesn’t seem to be learning from her mistakes, Nicholson makes it easier to challenge our own empathy threshold. We can all relate to making bad decisions that have unfortunate repercussions and we can understand that who we are right now isn’t necessarily who we are at our best or who we desire to be.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

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