‘Who We Are Now’: Film Review | TIFF 2017

A flawed film boosted by a stunning lead turn.

Julianne Nicholson ('August: Osage County') is given a starring instead of a supporting role as a woman struggling with the past in this indie drama co-starring Emma Roberts.

Very much an actors’ film, possibly to a fault, writer-director Matthew Newton’s Who We Are Now paperclips together the stories of an ambitious young lawyer with family issues (Emma Roberts) and an ex-convict (Julianne Nicholson) in need of support. Newton’s storytelling is skittish and a bit too on the nose at times, but his palpable generosity toward his cast is rewarded with committed, passionate turns from the ensemble. However, Nicholson, a performer all-too seldom given a chance to lead, is the big door prize here, offering an intricately layered performance that lifts the whole film up a notch. Perhaps if the film were more tightly constructed and more fruitfully focused on her character, this undervalued actor would have a better chance of awards recognition later this year.

Withholding information almost to the point of being annoyingly coy, Newton’s script takes its sweet time explaining who everyone is, what their relation is to one another and what did they do to make each other so mad. Eventually, the significance of the frosty opening scene where Beth (Nicholson) shows up unannounced on the doorstep of Gabby (Jess Weixler) and Sam (Scott Cohen) so that she can see Alec (Logan Schuyler Smith), a 10-year-old boy, eventually becomes clear.

Beth went to prison for manslaughter (what happened exactly is only revealed at the end in a wrenching, one-shot monologue). She did a 10-year stretch, has been out a year and now works in a nail salon. Gabby is her sister, and Alec is Beth’s biological son, although he doesn’t know that. Beth wants more access to him or even partial custody, but Gabby and Sam are keeping her at bay through legal mediation. The stress of guilt over what happened a decade ago, current poverty, readjusting to civilian life, fighting with her sister and longing for her child drives Beth to boozy hookups in her local bar, notably with hirsute but sad-eyed ex-soldier Peter (Zachary Quinto, charming), who is rebuffed when he offers Beth his phone number after they’ve had sex.  

Meanwhile, Beth’s lawyer Carl (Jimmy Smits) works at a pro bono/low-income-friendly law office with Jess (Roberts), a feisty young brief who came “third in her class at Columbia.” However, for reasons never fully clarified, Jess is torn between her work commitments and demands from her waspish mother (Lea Thompson) to help with the impending nuptials of her sister (Samantha Hill). After all, someone has to help make decisions about what color the bridesmaids' dresses will be.

A manicure at Beth’s nail salon and a few drinks bring Beth and Jess together in an alliance that may yet prove rewarding to both, although it is to the film’s credit that the resolution isn’t pat or easy.

Newton and his cast are much more interested in generating spontaneous feeling, highly naturalistic encounters that at their best feel like mini-homages to John Cassavetes or Robert Altman films, right down to the evenly mixed dialogue that puts all voices at the same volume. The problem is that the subplots — involving Jess’ collegial-flirtatious relationship with Carl, or her arguments with her mom — are far less interesting than what Beth is going through. A couple of scenes where Jason Biggs plays a skeevy restaurant manager who accepts a sexual favor from Beth but then welches on the deal is a mixed success. Cast against usual type, Biggs submits a striking performance here and sparks off Nicholson especially well, but the plot point feels labored.

The best bits are when the film just hangs back, doesn’t try to get in the way and allows its star let rip, showing off the discipline and subtlety honed from years of stage work that enable Nicholson to imbue tiny twitches and frowns with meaning. Rocking a severe short crop, she exudes a steely, aloof, feline grace, suggestive of a woman only just keeping herself together.

Production companies: No Place Like Films, Oriah Entertainment
Cast: Julianne Nicholson, Emma Roberts, Zachary Quinto, Jess Weixler, Lea Thompson, Jason Biggs, Jimmy Smits, Scott Cohen, Grant Shaud, Gloria Reuben, Samantha Hill, Octavia Chavez-Richmond, Logan Schuyler Smith, Camila Perez, Erinn Hayes, Stephanie March, Jo Mei, Clara Wong

Director-screenwriter: Matthew Newton
Producers: Kate Ballen, Matthew Newton, Varun Monga, Ray Bouderau, Julianne Nicholson
Executive producers: Alex Lebovici, Steve Ponce, Michael Bien
Director of photography: Dagmar Weaver-Madsen
Production designer: Matthew W. Novak
Costume designer: Begonia Berges
Editor: Betsy Kagen
Casting: Judy Henderson
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)

Sales: United Talent Agency

99 minutes