Who We Are Now contains no credits for music supervisor or composer. The only sound is ambient street noise and the conversations the characters are having, marking the film as a throwback to earlier generations of filmmakers who had enough faith in their work to let it speak for itself. To cover for this lack of extra sound prodding the audience forward, Nelson’s script is packed with dialogue and his camera often works in close-up, mesmerizing the viewer with furrowed brows and anguished eyes. There’s no need for a score when the acting is as enthralling as it is here.
Nicholson is the least famous of the main cast, familiar with this viewer through small roles on Boardwalk Empire and I, Tonya, but she carries her half of the film with smoldering single-mindedness. Brittle from substance abuse and prison and her present circumstances, she’s liable to explode in any interaction and just as likely to immediately walk back her outburst with apologies. She knows exactly how she’s supposed to act, and cannot consistently do so. She wins the film, but Roberts doesn’t let herself be completely overpowered by Nicholson’s intensity. Her Jess is crafted into a difficult and compelling character, a young woman who could easily be accused of accruing liberal virtue points amongst the underserved before she cashes in at a giant firm. There’s the possibility of that least charitable stance being the true case, plus her desire to spite a status-obsessed mother, and it leavens the blandness of what could otherwise have been a saintly do-gooder. True failure is out of reach for her compared to Beth. The film know this and makes her a believably human character without undercutting her journey.
Surrounding Nicholson and Roberts is a capable supporting cast that often reaches the heights of the leads. Zachary Quinto plays a returning vet who develops a relationship with Beth, and serves as another character who’s earlier life may as well be a thousand years in the past. His is an effective coming-home story that conjures so many others while also feeling unique to his character. Smits is well-cast as a wizened old pro unwilling to coddle Jess from the parts of the job that can crush a person’s spirit. Jason Biggs has a few scenes as a loathsome restaurant manager who interacts with Beth, while Thompson serves as an able antagonist for Jess’ part of the story. There’s something so frivolous and decadent about an over-the-top wedding that it makes the viewer root for the guillotines, and Thompson’s character is that feeling’s selfish avatar.
Who We Are Now is making a political statement in its lack of outwardly stating one. In these specific times, calls for empathy feel like something people can take sides on, and there are so many characters in this film that are in desperate need for someone to extend some kindness in their direction. First among them is Beth in what should be a breakout performance for Nicholson. Nelson’s film has many strengths, and she’s at the top of the heap. B+