From writer-director Matthew Newton (From Nowhere) comes a story of people who struggle to keep at bay the things that have gotten them into trouble in the past. Who We Are Now tells the story of New Yorker Beth (Julianne Nicholson, as good as she’s every been), who has just been released from a 10-year stint in prison for manslaughter.
Sadly, hers is not a case of mistaken identity or self defense, and although she didn’t mean to kill the person she did, it wasn’t exactly an accident either. The film takes its time unveiling all aspects of the complicated relationships that surround Beth, including the one she has with her sister Gabby (Jess Weixler) and her little boy Alec (Logan Smith), whom Beth seems desperate to see.
As it turns out, Alec is actually Beth’s biological son, and she turns over guardianship of him to Gabby before going to prison. Although they all seem to be getting along together when we first meet them, it turns out the sisters are in a custody battle over Alec. In a tense and ugly meeting with their lawyers, Gabby has decided that she wants total custody, despite a verbal arrangement they reached earlier. Gabby’s lawyer (Gloria Reuben) and Beth’s attorney (Jimmy Smits) lock horns, and Beth’s desperation rears its ugly head in the form of rage and insults, something she’s been attempting to keep under control since getting out of prison.
Nicholson’s portrayal of Beth is some of the finest acting I’ve seen in recent memory, as the bottled-up emotions swimming around in her head are practically shooting out of her eyes in the form of lightning bolts. She’s also struggling to find a more secure job beyond the one at the nail salon/spa where she works part time. There’s an especially cringe-worthy job interview for a waitressing job at a higher-end restaurant that starts out nicely until the manager (Jason Biggs) begins asking her about the 10-year gap in her employment history.
Once again, her desperation creeps forward and before long she’s promising him anything to get the job. The only thing worse than that scene is one where Beth confronts him a couple days later, wondering why she hasn’t heard from him about the job, and he threatens to call the police and say she threatened his life.
Beth does find a type of solace in a man she meets at a local bar, a on-edge former Marine (Zachary Quinto) who starts out as a one-night stand until he actually calls her a few days later and they go out on an actual date. The pair are so perfectly damaged in their own unique ways that they complement each other beautifully. They compare emotional scars like some people compare physical ones, and the more they open up to each other, the more we begin to root for them.
Having debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Who We Are Now also tells the story of a junior attorney Jess (Emma Roberts) working for Smits at a public defense firm, and while her story isn’t nearly as tragic as Beth’s, the film reminds us that pain and struggle are relative and take on different appearances with everyone.
Jess is a constant disappointment to her mother (a surprisingly nasty Lea Thompson), who hates the fact that her daughter is working on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. With her sister leading a more ideal life and getting married soon, Jess can’t help but feel inferior and small in everyone’s eyes. But when she meets Beth, she becomes inspired to help her get custody of her son and give her life a small amount of redemption, or at least a step in the right direction.
Actor-turned-filmmaker Newton isn’t attempting make an inspirational film, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t end up making us feel hopeful. He lets scenes linger when other filmmakers might have cut them short to conserve time and move onto the next plot point. Instead, he allows his characters to simply talk to each other, revealing themselves in the process, and giving them greater dimension, allowing us to more fully invest in their setbacks and pain.
I genuinely loved getting to know these people, and considering how rough around the edges some of them are, that’s saying a lot. Who We Are Now is a poignant, touching, perfectly acted work that makes me immediately eager to see what Newton does next. Seek this one out.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.