In the indie drama “Who We Are Now,” Julianne Nicholson plays Beth, an ex-con fighting to regain custody of her son, while Emma Roberts plays Jess, her headstrong attorney. In a film about two very different women struggling with their own questionable choices, writer-director Matthew Newton has given a couple of excellent character actresses perhaps the meatiest roles of their careers. And Nicholson and Roberts feast.
Roberts brings a compassion bordering on mania to Jess, whose decision to dedicate her formidable legal skills to helping the indigent flummoxes her high-society mother. As Beth, Nicholson shows frightening flashes of frustration and indignation, immediately tempered with regret, born of her stubborn faith that getting her child back will fix everything.
Newton succumbs to some common indie-film failures. The women’s various opponents often come off as unnecessarily mean and smug. And “Who We Are Now” annoyingly withholds the details of Beth’s crime until the third act, not because that’s the best time for the audience to find out, but because that’s the formula for this type of movie.
But Nicholson and Roberts aren’t playing a clichéd version of this story. Nor is anyone else in a well-stocked supporting cast, which includes Jimmy Smits, Jess Weixler and Zachary Quinto. Every minute of this film is absolutely mesmerizing. It’s as if the stars are commanding the audience’s attention, knowing they may never get this kind of showcase again.
‘Who We Are Now’
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica