TIFF Review: 'Who We Are Now'

Who We Are Now
(USA, 95 min.)
Written and directed by Matthew Newton
Starring: Julianne Nicholson, Emma Roberts, Zachary Quito, Jimmy Smits
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF
Julianne Nicholson is always good, but nobody’s ever given her the chance to show her full potential. Nicholson is a reliable supporting player after turning in good work as, say, the tirelessly devoted Ivy alongside Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in August: Osage County, the straight-laced skating coach in I, Tonya, and the connective tissue to family drama in Tully. The actress gets her first true lead role in the movies with Who We Are Now and she doesn’t skimp on the opportunity to inhabit her character as fully as she can. What a treat it is to see a character actor find a great a lead role and dive into it.

Nicholson’s character is Beth, a weary woman who has spent ten years of the prime of her life in prison. Writer/director Matthew Newton (Three Blind Mice) doesn’t reveal the reasons behind Beth’s stint in the slammer until necessary and instead gives Beth a hungry hope for renewal. Nicholson’s performance defines Beth not by what she did but by what she hopes to be. The film valiantly suggests that people have the capacity to change and Beth’s redemption is to prove herself a different person from the one she was a decade ago.

Getting people to see beyond the criminal conviction isn’t easy, though, since Beth struggles to rebuild her personal and professional lives. A heartfelt effort to see her son hints at the devastating personal quest to come when the boy’s guardians—Beth’s sister and brother-in-law—chill at her unexpected visit. It’s obvious that Beth isn’t a factor in her son’s life and this absence is not by her choice. As much as he likes the jazz CD this stranger gives him, Beth’s sad anonymity to the boy overwhelms the moment when one realizes that her sister has betrayed her very existence. Beth’s son has no idea who she is.

A bitter custody battle ensues and introduces Beth to Jess (Emma Roberts) an eager but green lawyer working pro-bono cases at a charitable firm. Beth still believes in the altruistic nature of law and she devotes herself to those in need when she could easily be commanding high salaries defending the rich and crooked. Roberts’ brings a hearty bit of fire to the part and makes Jess a likable upstart idealist, although the character’s relationship with her snooty mother (Lea Thompson) and borderline unprofessional attachment to her clients sometimes strains credibility. Other great performances, like Zachary Quinto’s impassioned turn as an Afghan war vet with PTSD, ensure that Who We Are Now breathes with refreshing naturalism.

This assured air comes primarily through Nicholson’s fully realized performance as Beth. Nicholson inhabits every element of her character as if she were a second skin. Driven by a fierce desire to reclaim the life she once had, Beth’s conviction and vulnerability shake up an agile cocktail that Nicholson pours and serves with careful measure. Newton doesn’t need to extol the hard knocks that Beth had faced over the years since Nicholson wears them as a subtle mask of frustration and fatigue as she tries to shake her past and the baggage it carries. This character can be very explosive when she needs to be, or flirty and calculating when duty calls, and Nicholson dexterously creates a complicated woman who demands sympathy despite her flaws. When she finally lets the steam vent with an outpouring of emotion, Nicholson gives the film palpable catharsis as Beth lets go of her burdens and takes the first step towards change. Beth’s imperfections make her profoundly human and make this performance so utterly captivating.

Find more TIFF coverage here.
Visit TIFF.net for more info on this year’s festival.

Update! Who We Are Now is available to stream in Canada via Hooplah digital.