Actor-turned-director Matthew Newton’s starrier indie drama Who We Are Now (2017) revolves around an ex-con (splendidly played by Julianne Nicholson) with a chequered past, desperately trying to forge a new path in life. Parallels could be drawn between this story of rejection & ostracism and Matthew Newton’s controversial personal life, but at the same time the film-maker’s human concerns goes beyond serving his quest for personal catharsis. Matthew, son of the legendary Australian TV personality Bert Newton, has a history of alleged domestic violence, which was widely reported in his home country. In 2007, Newton pleaded guilty to physically assaulting his then-girlfriend, actress Brooke Satchwell (his conviction, however, was overturned on grounds of mental illness). Three-years later he was apprehended on physical assault case, the victim his fiance & actress Rachel Taylor.
More charges of assault followed Newton (for attacking a taxi driver in Sydney and a hotel clerk in Miami) but he avoided conviction in those cases, and by the year 2012, Newton has settled down in New York. After the release of his moderately successful and critically acclaimed indies – From Nowhere and Who We Are Now – Newton has addressed his quest to overcome mental health illness and problems with substance abuse. Although Newton’s privilege may have helped him escape conviction, he is still under public scrutiny for his past actions. Last year, the film-maker quitted a project involving actress Jessica Chastain when it faced severed backlash in social media, with Twitterati accusing Chastain of hypocrisy (who has vigorously campaigned against gender discrimination in Hollywood) for opting to work with Matthew Newton.
The reason why Who We Are Now doesn’t feel self-centered, despite Newton’s commentary on society’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ viewpoint, is because of the way he subtly ingrains real-world complexity. Through the tale of Beth (Julianne Nicholson), a woman recently released from prison after serving 10 years for manslaughter, Newton depicts the tough task of seeking redemption which he says couldn’t be attained through any divine miracle. He gracefully portrays the chaos and heartbreaks a redemption-seeking individual has to face. Moreover, the film-maker doesn’t champion his pariah protagonist while turning her rivals into one-note villains or her protectors into angels. Newton also smartly avoids the cynical attitude and closes his low-key drama with a resounding message of forgiveness and hopefulness.
The film opens with Beth’s unannounced arrival at the doorstep of her younger sister, Gabby (Jess Weixler). Gabby reluctantly invites Beth into her home. Once inside, Beth avoids the sullen looks of Gabby and her husband Sam (Scott Cohen) and waits to meet their 10-year-old son Alec (Logan Schuyler Smith). Beth gifts Alec a Jazz music CD and yearns to bask in the boy’s compassionate gaze which she doesn’t receive, as the boy is a bit confused by the aunt’s random visit. A sense of unrest envelopes the conversation between Beth and Gabby. Soon, we learn Alec is Beth’s son, raised by her sister for his entire life while she was serving a 10-year prison term. The relationship dynamics between the sisters has changed in the recent years as Gabby is determined to have sole custody of Alec. Beth is currently working at a nail salon and her prison record perpetually blocks her efforts to gain a decent job and to contest for shared custody.
The plot also focuses on an idealistic, young public defender, Jess (Emma Roberts) who works for ‘Watchdogs’, a legal aid group. We see her counseling for a convicted 17-year-old Latina named Maria (Camila Perez) with very limited English-speaking skills, who might turn over a new leaf if she receives a scholarship to graduate high-school. It is through Maria’s fate Jess learns the inherent unfairness of the judicial system. She comes to learn that her supreme legal skills and good intentions aren’t gonna overcome the institutionalized apathy. But before that Jess’ indefatigable boss Carl (Jimmy Smits) offers her a full-time position. The legal problems of the poor might be the last thing in the mind of Jess’ well-to-do mother (Lea Thompson) who is dedicating her time to perfectly plan the wedding of Jess’ elder sister, Monica (Samantha Hill). It is obvious Jess’ mom isn’t going to be pleased if her daughter opts to work on pro-bono cases instead of securing a position in a law firm. Both Beth and Jess’ paths eventually crisscrosses, but their encounters are unexpectedly messier and stay away from offering easy way out of the disarrayed scenario.
Who We Are Now largely works due to the various shades Newton attributes to his characters. The film-maker earnestly conveys Beth’s efforts to turn her life around, while at the same time he doesn’t gloss over Beth’s feisty or self-destructive characteristics. When it comes to Jess, her humanistic, idealistic values are tackled alongside her privileged background and false convictions on judicial mechanism. The boss character, gracefully played by Smits, feels like a guy carrying the weight of the world on his back and also a person who has a firm grasp on the hard realities. Zachary Quinto plays Beth’s love interest Peter, a disillusioned and PTSD-afflicted vet whose characterization glows with naturalism that mostly transcends the inherent dramatic qualities associated to it. Even the repugnant restaurant manager character played by Jason Biggs comes across as a three-dimensional human being. Some of the vignettes Newton constructs to spell out the systematic oppression faced by Beth don’t always work and the third-act character transitions seem a bit abrupt. Yet the ensemble of talented & familiar actors smooths over the unevenness in the narrative.
Julianne Nicholson, in her career-best performance as Beth, perfectly conveys the reality of her character’s situation without much dialogue. The profound grief she registers when her boy doesn’t even acknowledge her presence (in the opening scene) strongly specifies the true relation between Beth and Alec. Director Newton gets great help from Julianne whose nuanced expressions (especially the portrayal of Beth’s vulnerability) duly fills out the missing plot or character details. The actress is particularly great in scenes when she gradually calms down after losing herself to anger (for example, her verbal altercation with a colleague or when she directs her bottled ferocity towards Jess). In fact, the truth of her expressions naturally extinguishes the melodrama out of the material. I find Emma Roberts to be an annoying actress who repeatedly plays troubled, privileged b**ch. Only this time Newton’s sharp writing allows Emma to really internalize Jess’ conflicts and offer some deeply authentic emotions. With ‘From Nowhere’ and ‘Who We Are Now’, Matthew Newton is slowly evolving as a good, independent film-maker; his low-key direction (which doesn’t filter out the cacophony of the surroundings and uses overlapping dialogues in the style of Robert Altman) and writing driven by steady accumulation of details are the biggest strengths.
Overall, Who WeAre Now (95 minutes) is a slightly unbalanced yet a superbly helmed and performed small-scale film about redemption, empathy, self-worth and forgiveness.