Matthew Newton’s indie drama Who We Are Now shines whenever it allows Julianne Nicholson to do the emotional heavy lifting. In the in medias res opening, Newton offers scant exposition as Nicholson’s brittle, tightly wound Beth arrives unannounced (and unwelcome) at the doorstep of Gabby (Jess Weixler), insisting on seeing the woman’s ten-year-old son Alec (Logan Schuyler Smith). The desperate longing with which Beth hands the boy a present — and the wrenching heartbreak on her face when he barely acknowledges her — fill in the missing details. Beth is Alec’s mother and, as we eventually learn, when she was incarcerated for manslaughter a decade ago, she signed away custody to her sister Gabby. As Beth tries to rebuild her life and regain her son, she meets Jess (Emma Roberts) — a young, earnest pro bono lawyer eager to help her.

Newton alternates between these protagonists in a series of wonderfully loose, cacophonous vignettes. Characters speak over and across each other, often fumbling in revealing ways: A conversation comes to an awkward halt when Beth’s friend makes a throwaway reference to jail; Jess is forced to quickly redact a naive promise she makes to a young client. The naturalism of these moments jars, however, with the contrivance of the many subplots: Beth’s love interest is — of course — a divorced and PTSD-stricken vet, while Jess constantly clashes with her naggy and materialistic mother. Moreover, splitting the narrative between the two makes the film feel oddly unbalanced, given that Beth faces a more compelling and high-stakes arc than Jess.

These quibbles, however, are afterthoughts. While Nicholson’s onscreen, it’s impossible to pay heed to anything but her. She scorches the film with her barely bottled ferocity and vulnerability.

First published in the Village Voice on May 23, 2018