Sunday, 6 December 2020

Movie Review: Who We Are Now (2017)

A drama about second chances, Who We Are Now is a finely crafted study of women striving for better.

One year after being released from prison, Beth (Julianne Nicholson) is trying to secure custody of her child Alec. She served 10 years for manslaughter, and Alec was raised by her sister Gabby (Jess Weixler). Carl (Jimmy Smits) runs a budget law firm specializing in representing prisoners, but during the custody mediation process Gabby stands firm and refuses to grant additional visitation rights, Beth's inflammatory behaviour not helping her cause.

Jess (Emma Roberts) works for Carl and takes an interest in Beth's case while also trying to help prisoner Maria secure a spot in a high school completion program. Meanwhile Jess is navigating a fraught relationship with her theatrical mother Alana (Lea Thompson), and Beth meets army veteran Peter (Zachary Quinto) for a one-night stand or more.

An independent production set in Brooklyn, Who We Are Now elegantly weaves together the narratives of two women navigating redemption and justice obstacle courses. Writer and director Matthew Newton embraces realism and settles for no easy answers, the film dropping in on lives-in-progress and gaining momentum through the daily twists and turns accompanying a quest for determined self-improvement and an idealistic belief in helping others.

The journeys of Beth and Jess are full of frustrations, cruel set-backs, and testing confrontations. Beth is fixated on regaining regular contact with Alec, sacrificing everything including her dignity to try and secure a better income to upgrade her legal representation. Her biggest battle is against her own history of incarceration, an almost physically visible and permanent mark of disgrace sabotaging her efforts for a better future. Julianne Nicholson haunts the movie with an on-the-edge performance, displaying delicate fragility hiding just behind last-stand toughness.

Meanwhile Jess is young and utopian, finding her way in the world of law for the disenfranchised and radiating enough promise for Carl to fast-track her career. But Jess is chafing under the influence of a mother who smothers with theatricality, and Newton stages the scenes of Jess interacting with her family as a series of noisy overlapping conversations, superficial affection barely concealing barbed resentment. Emma Roberts delivers a grounded performance, embracing her character's gradual understanding of a flawed judicial system capable of merciless gut punches.

And to complete a triangle of characters carrying heavy luggage, Beth's one-night stand with Peter turns into something more, his eyes hiding behind the fog of war experiences but still recognizing the potential for good in Beth.

With no music and a dedication to close-up and intrusive camerawork, Who We Are Now salutes authentic characters with cultured empathy.



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