For a significant portion of “Who Are We Now,” an exemplary indie drama from writer-director Matthew Newton (“From Nowhere”), the lives of its two main characters never intersect, almost to the point where it feels like two short stories that are barely tethered together. This is a risky narrative strategy, to say the least, but it also reveals the depth of Newton’s commitment: He wants the audience to understand these two women completely — their jobs, their families, their turbulent emotional states — before they get to know each other. By the time that finally happens, the stakes are extraordinarily high and the performances, by Julianne Nicholson and Emma Roberts, have a combined power that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Low-concept, modestly scaled indies are always a hard sell, but authentic passion and a steady accumulation of detail sets “Who We Are Now” apart.
Recently released from prison after a long stretch, Beth (Nicholson) wants desperately to reconnect with her son, but her sister Gabby (Jess Weixler) and her husband have taken over as the child’s legal guardians and they’re not convinced she’s ready to share custody. Beth has no relationship with the boy, who calls her “Auntie” and treats her like a stranger, and she doesn’t help her case by showing up for unannounced visits and causing a scene. Her troubled past tends to scare off potential employers, so for now she logs time at a nail salon while pressing her pro-bono attorney (Jimmy Smits) to argue for a better custody arrangement. She may be in the right, but her tempestuous personality constantly threatens to be her undoing.
Meanwhile, at the same public defense clinic where Beth’s case is being handled, Jess (Roberts) is busy representing a juvenile inmate who’s offered a scholarship to finish her high-school education, but gets some pushback from a judge who’s worried about her propensity toward violence. Jess loves the work and fights tenaciously for her clients, but she clashes constantly with her mother (Lea Thompson), who feels the long hours and lousy pay are a waste of a law degree. After a tragic setback at the office leaves her questioning her career path, Jess looks for a case that will reignite her conviction. She finds it in Beth, another beleaguered fighter looking for the path forward.
Newton adds compelling character dimension for everyone in the supporting cast: Smits as a veteran public defender who both encourages the much less experienced Jess and braces her with a splash of cold water when necessary; Zachary Quinto as a local barfly who turns a one-night-stand with Beth into a more lasting partnership, but struggles with PTSD after multiple tours in Afghanistan; and Thompson and Weixler as women who set themselves against our two heroines, but not to the point where their concerns are delegitimized. Each role has been thought through with a little more dignity and care than expected; the film wins a game of inches.
Ultimately, though, “Who We Are Now” belongs to Nicholson, who resists the urge to turn Beth into a more ingratiating soul. There’s a danger to Beth that’s real and concerning to the judge, her sister and us: a hardness and quick temper that’s surely been worsened in prison and makes her potentially unfit to be a mother. The title could be read as aspirational — as in, not who we are in the past — but it could also be a barometer on Beth’s progress as a stable, functioning member of society. Nicholson lends Beth a flawed nobility that puts equal emphasis on both readings, at least until a wrenching final scene reveals her true nature. Newton has made a beautiful little film about sacrifice and redemption, and he earns it one tiny brushstroke at a time.