Review: The path to redemption is murky in taut political thriller ‘What We Do Next’

A serious-looking woman stands before several national flags
Karen Pittman in the movie “What We Do Next.”
(Garrette Rose)

While it doesn’t venture far from its evident stage roots, neither does “What We Do Next,” a sinewy, tautly calibrated morality play, ever stray from the decidedly contemporary issues at its complex core.

Criminal justice and political ambition bump up against race and class distinction in this intriguingly tangled web of a low-key thriller from writer-director Stephen Belber, which holds its various hot-button topics in an increasingly claustrophobic grip.

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At the pivotal center of the spare, adroitly acted three-hander is Karen Pittman’s Sandy James, a Black New York councilwoman and social justice crusader whose aspirations are trained squarely on the mayor’s seat.

But there’s a hitch in her ascendancy in the form of Elsa (Michelle Veintimilla), a young Latina to whom Sandy had lent money years earlier to help the then-teenager get away from her abuser.

At the time, Sandy, an outspoken gun-control advocate, insists she was unaware that the $500 she gave Elsa was used for the purchase of a weapon, which Elsa proceeded to use to kill her father.

While that information didn’t come out during Elsa’s trial, 16 years later, on the eve of her release from prison, an intrepid journalist revisiting the case could effectively put the brakes on Sandy’s ladder-climbing should Elsa reveal the source of that loan.

Enter white knight Paul (Corey Stoll), a divorced corporate lawyer and former flame of Sandy’s who offers to take the blame as the one who personally gave Elsa the money. But when they get to Elsa ahead of the journalist, the emboldened ex-con expects something in return — namely a decent-paying job.


Unsurprisingly, the quid pro quo doesn’t stop there, as both Sandy and Paul find themselves enmeshed in Elsa’s shrewd machinations.

Although the script may be guilty of excessive exposition, particularly in the earlier scenes, overall the film, clocking in at less than 80 minutes, uses its time wisely.

To Belber’s credit, the lean, stripped-down construction of what he refers to as “a moral maze in which well-meaning people find themselves lost” owes as much to necessity as it does to conceptual design.

Shot in 2020 over the course of a week at the height of the pandemic, and preceded by extensive Zoom rehearsals, the social distancing requirements end up making for a sparse, isolating environment, unencumbered by superficial distractions.

Captured by cinematographer Garrett Rose’s oppressively tight framing, the cast is allowed precious little wiggle room, but even so, it’s a credit to the talent involved that even when you think you know where things are headed, they sidestep the predictable on several occasions.

Especially persuasive is Pittman, whose character’s naked ambition, already barely disguised under a cool reserve, threatens to break through the widening cracks in her progressively complicated relationships.

As is the case for her fellow, deeply conflicted protagonists, “What We Do Next” ultimately suggests there is no clear path to redemption.

‘What We Do Next‘

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes

Playing: Starts March 3, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; AMC Burbank Town Center 8, Burbank