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The hope of redemption in ‘Who We Are Now’

By Shane Danielsen
Matthew Newton’s latest film is – appropriately – a story about facing up to the past

While visiting Chicago in the days before this year’s Toronto Film Festival, I mentioned to some Australian friends – also visiting the city – how much I was looking forward to the latest film by Matthew Newton. The response was more or less as expected. He was an arsehole, they said. A drunk, a cokehead, a woman-basher. I observed that, while that may or may not be true, were we to confine our viewing to filmmakers of unblemished moral excellence, we’d all see a lot more sunshine.

Five years of running a film festival taught me that many creative types are monsters, to varying degrees. Lift the rock even a little, and you find they’re cheating on their partners, or strung out on drugs; are abusive, deceitful, petty or cruel. But the show must go on, and so many regrettable details are quietly overlooked; you learn to set aside your revulsion and focus instead upon the work – which at its best will not only transcend its makers’ personal shortcomings, but render them irrelevant.

None of which is to condone what Newton did, or what he was. I never encountered him in his wild days, but I have little doubt he was unbearable. Yet I also really admired his second feature, 2009’s Three Blind Mice, and watched his subsequent descent into addiction and mental illness with real dismay. After years of silence, he returned last year with From Nowhere, shot in the US where he now resides. Set in a high school in the South Bronx, and following the tales of three undocumented students in a country that offers them no place and little opportunity, it felt so acutely observed, so finely attuned to its milieu, it hardly seemed possible it had been made by a non-American. And his latest, I’m pleased to report, is better still.

Appropriately, Who We Are Now – which Newton once again wrote as well as directed – is concerned with redemption. A woman (Julianne Nicholson) turns up one day, unannounced, at a Brooklyn brownstone. The couple living there with their young son appear none too pleased to see her, but introduce her to the boy as Aunty Beth. In fact, she’s the child’s mother, recently released from prison after a ten-year stretch for manslaughter. Now she wants a bigger role in her son’s life, much to the displeasure of the sister to whom she entrusted him.

Meanwhile, a young female lawyer (Emma Roberts), working for a legal-aid centre elsewhere in the borough, is trying to gain parole for a young Hispanic woman about to be swallowed up by the penal system. The lawyer’s boss (Jimmy Smits) has offered her a promotion, but she’s reluctant to accept it, for fear of further disappointing the mother who wanted her to pursue a career in private practice. Her sister is getting married, and she feels inadequate and directionless.

For much of the film, Newton keeps these two strands separate – the better to document their separate worlds. And what looks, at first glance, to be a boilerplate US indie actually pulses with energy and conviction – in part, because his script takes care to give each of his protagonists actual, crowded lives. Each of these women has bosses, friends, families, histories; every encounter, every conversation, feels truthful and illuminating. Piece by painstaking piece, Newton builds a social portrait, aided by uniformly excellent performances – he’s always been a superb director of actors – and his own efficient, unshowy direction. Despite the particularity of its setting, the result is perhaps closest in spirit to the unvarnished naturalism of French social realists such as Katell Quillévéré and Laurent Cantet.

Eventually the two narratives converge, leading to an ending so pitch-perfect it actually feels wise. And watching, you realise the true meaning of the title. What matters, Newton seems to be saying, are not our turbulent pasts, but what, if anything, we make out of them: who we are now. The person we’re always trying, and failing, and trying again to become.

A few hours before I saw the film, an American colleague – formerly a trade critic, now at Amazon – hastened to assure me it was excellent; Newton, he said, was “the real deal”. He is. He’s also the kind of filmmaker Australia badly needs – a tonic for a country in which virtually no one seems either interested in or capable of making films about ordinary people’s lives. I wouldn’t wish working in the local industry on anyone who can get out (much less the sanctimonious grilling by Today Tonight he’d inevitably face), but part of me truly wishes he’d come home. We need someone to tell the small, urgent, necessary stories. To show us how we live now.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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