If there were any justice in this sick, sad world, history would remember 2017 as the year that people woke the hell up and stopped taking Julianne Nicholson for granted. There isn’t, and it won’t, but that shouldn’t stop us from giving America’s most under-appreciated screen actress the credit she’s been owed since the last century. Raw and intractably real in a number of small indies that you’ve probably never seen (“Tully,” “Flannel Pajamas”), just as good in a handful of larger films that you probably have (“Kinsey,” “August: Osage County”), and even better in three new movies that you’ll be able to see in the next few months (including “I, Tonya” and “Novitiate”), the elfin Massachusetts native may spend the brunt of her time working “Law & Order” gigs on TV, but she has an authenticity that bigger stars can’t buy and a range that Kim Jong-un would kill to achieve.
Now 46 years old and more compelling than ever, Nicholson is doing some of her best work at a point in her life when most actresses are being callously aged out of their careers.
But nobody can be told what makes Julianne Nicholson so great, you have to see it for yourself — she’s kind of like the Matrix in that way (a movie in which she regrettably wasn’t cast). But lo, this review brings good news for all the potential fans who have been failing the actress (and themselves) for far too long: There has never been a better showcase for her talents than “Who We Are Now.” Told with the full texture of real life, Nicholson’s second collaboration with “From Nowhere” filmmaker Matthew Newton is a close-up character study that explores notions of forgiveness and self-worth with surgical precision.
It’s also a devastatingly authentic drama that’s as guarded and unforthcoming as its protagonist. The only thing we’re told about Nicholson’s character is that her name is Beth; everything else we’re left to sort out — or pry out — for ourselves. We meet her on a snowy New York City afternoon as she drops in on a married couple with a gift for their smart young son.
Beth’s unwelcomeness, and the gulping grimace with which she gives the boy his new jazz CD, is enough to convey that she’s probably his birth mother, but it will be a little while before we learn why she didn’t raise him herself (she was in jail), and a little while longer before we learn what her sister (Jess Weixler) has in mind for the kid’s future.
In fact, it takes some time before we so much as see Beth again, as Newton’s script puts her story on pause in order to introduce us to a fledgling lawyer named Jess (Emma Roberts). Working at a small firm that’s dedicated to pro-bono cases, Jess is introduced in a private meeting with an imprisoned teenage Latina mother whose violent streak — and inability to speak English — have made her extremely vulnerable to a court system that has very specific ideas of what a “good person” is supposed to look like. Jess, on the other hand, is white as a snowflake; bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and rosy with good intentions. She graduated third in her class from Columbia, and it’s clear that she’s still growing into her intelligence.
As we watch Jess swallow her words, try not to talk over the translator, and force herself not to conflate her conviction with her confidence, it’s immediately obvious that Roberts is prepared to make the most of the role. Delivering her best performance since “Palo Alto,” the hard-working starlet thoroughly convinces that she’s more than a pretty face and a killer pedigree. Jimmy Smits is just as strong in the part of Beth’s no-nonsense boss, the veteran actor perfectly intuiting the rhythm of Newton’s overlapping dialogue, which threads the needle between naturalism and theatricality (Robert Altman comparisons are inevitable, but these words tend to be more pointed).
If it feels like Newton has almost forgotten about Beth as he introduces his other major characters, that’s because “Who We Are Now” is almost exclusively comprised of extended, unbroken scenes. Shot in shallow focus and so deprived of artifice that they assume a vérité-like air of truth, what these discrete dramatic blocks lose in cinematic razzle-dazzle they gain in vacuum-sealed urgency, so that the whole world feels like it’s hanging in the balance of every conversation.
For Beth, it might as well be. She’s trying to get her life back on track, but she’s sinking in the quicksand of who she used to be, and the more she struggles to claw her way out of the hole the deeper into it she falls. The most wrenching moments in this film would be the most triumphant ones in other, more ordinary movies, as Beth trips every time she tries to stand up for herself. She loses her temper during a meeting, and the outburst provokes her son’s guardians to seek full custody.
She goes down on a slimy restaurant manager (Jason Biggs) in order to secure a waitressing gig, but comes out of the deal feeling cheaper for it. Both encounters — and a handful more like them — are heartbreaking because of how viscerally Nicholson’s performance negotiates the person Beth was with the person Beth wants to be. The more we learn about her, the less empathetic she gets; the less empathetic she gets, the more we want for her.
But then Jess — who’s feeling more helpless by the day — decides to take Beth’s case, and the subtle symmetry between these two flailing women offers both of them the hope of a way forward. At first, Beth won’t even let Jess touch her (and she’s very clear about that). As their working relationship organically develops, however, they’re soon both stirred into doing the work. And there’s a lot of work to be done.
Winning a legal case is work, but so is sacrifice, and redemption, and accepting the fact that the present is the only part of your life that you have the immediate power to change. It’s hard work to help, it’s hard work to ask for help, and it’s even hard work to let people help you, despite the fact that someone is always willing to try.
Audiences have earned good reason to be wary of any micro-budget American indie that grapples with those themes, and there are so many places where this film could have gone wrong, where it could have felt trite or treacly. But “Who We Are Now” very seldom feels like it’s just serving its big ideas, and it handles each of them with such a rare degree of specificity that it often seems like a movie without precedent. Watching the gears spin behind Nicholson’s eyes, or the astonishing long take in which she finally bares her soul while struggling to save a piece of it for herself, Newton’s writing surrenders to an ineffable honesty that blots out everything on both sides. In these scenes, it’s truly possible to imagine that Beth can squeeze her life inside a single moment.
The film only stumbles toward didacticism with some of its supporting male characters, who occasionally betray the utility of their purpose in this story. Zachary Quinto is super believable as a burly bar fly who buzzes around Beth until she lowers her guard (Jon Bernthal himself couldn’t have done any better), but the PTSD he suffers from his stint in Iraq isn’t given enough attention to come across as anything more than an easy rationale for Beth’s attraction to him. Biggs is similarly convincing, but his recognizability — combined with the transparent function of his part — distracts from the business at hand, redirecting attention to the structure of a movie that otherwise does a tremendous job of pretending it doesn’t have one.
However, in “Who We Are Now” — as in jazz and everything else — such temporary dissonances ultimately make the beautiful moments that much better. Newton’s film knows that people are always going to be letting themselves (and each other) down, no matter how hard they try, and Nicholson’s unforgettable turn makes it impossible for us to forget it. Life is hard, but it isn’t over. Just because we failed people yesterday doesn’t mean we have to fail them tomorrow — every second can be a second chance if we let it. Beth is proof of that. So is the woman who plays her.