There are not many filmmakers who are doing what Matthew Newton is, though it can feel like there are. Whereas socially conscious dramas aren’t difficult to find, it is rare to see them as actually conscious of the world as Newton has achieved in his last two films, “From Nowhere” and now his latest “Who We Are Now,” which delve into the chasm between messy human concerns and the resolutions provided by an unforgiving legal system where a one-size-fits-all approach hardly seems appropriate.
As in “From Nowhere,” in which three teens lived uneasily in New York as the children of undocumented immigrants, “Who We Are Now” puts that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach as you see Beth (a fearless Julianne Nicholson) arrive at the front door of her sister Gabby’s (Jess Weixler) brownstone uninvited. The snow outside holds no comparison to the chilly feeling within as Beth looks to see her 10-year-old son, who she gave up a decade earlier, to Gabby and her husband Sam (Scott Cohen) for reasons that remain cryptic, but a prison stretch was involved.
The introduction is brief, as the film quickly shifts focus over to a young lawyer named Jess (Emma Roberts), counseling a a 17-year-old Latina with limited English about her criminal case and informing her of a scholarship that’s available to help. With the assistance of a Spanish-speaking associate (Octavia Chavez-Richmond) at the organization Watchdogs, Jess has become adept at working with delicate clients, though she’s less sure of herself than her boss (Jimmy Smits), who offers to turn her volunteer status into a full-time position. For someone who was third in her class at Columbia, it isn’t an obvious decision to stay, especially since it isn’t going to please her well-to-do mother (Lea Thompson), who makes clear Jess’s sister’s wedding should take priority over the legal problems of the poor.
Inevitably, you know Beth and Jess’s paths will cross, but Newton’s film stirs well before, finding the two both to be individually compelling as they enter a part of society they’re unfamiliar with, as Beth emerges from prison at the mercy of a world that feels as if it has no use for her and Jess learns that her legal skills only go so far outside of the theoretical trappings of law school, at the whim of impervious judges who might object to a defendant’s nail polish and off-the-record conversations that have more impact than anything on it. Where the film really shines is articulating the intangible role privilege plays in both their lives, inhibiting Jess’ understanding of the cases she takes on and making Beth’s continual pleas of “I’ll do anything” fall on deaf ears all the more devastating.
Although a larger and starrier ensemble and a broader scope may take a slight edge away for some from Newton’s previous film, which drew some of its authentic feel and sense of surprise from its mostly unknown cast, “Who We Are Now” remains electric as the director once again brings the abstract into laser-like focus and creates a dramatically satisfying narrative out of issues involving class, family and gender without ever reducing their complexity. As a screenwriter, Newton also has a strong feel for when to inject a sharp one-liner without leaving the reality of any given situation, and it seems telling of how he sees his own work when Jess mentions to a client, “When you punch someone bigger than you, you only get one chance.” Despite the enormity of its ambition, “Who We Are Now” resoundingly hits the mark.