It’s a human impulse to reach out and help.
But what happens when that help turns to harm? Are we obligated to then set things right? To do whatever it takes?
That’s the question raised in What We Do Next, a talky but intriguing movie from writer/director Stephen Belber.
After hearing the anguish of an abused adolescent, a community activist taps into her organization’s funds to get her $500. The teen then uses that money to kill her violent father. Convicted of murder, she does 16 years in prison. Was the activist responsible for what the girl spent the money on? Is she responsible for her once she gets out on parole?
These are the questions the film turns on.
Belber has said he first imagined the film as a play, and those roots are still awkwardly obvious (and would be, even if a subtitle didn’t call it “A film in seven scenes”). Running time is under an hour-and-a-half. Each scene stars only two, or at most three, actors. Each one is set in a small, specific, enclosed space and takes place in real time.
The film isn’t just dialogue – Belber is smart enough to have a couple of scenes built to a short, physical confrontation. But the restrictions – both the self-imposed ones, for artistic reasons, and the mandated ones, thanks to budget considerations or COVID protocols – can lead to claustrophobia. Don’t these people ever go outside?
Still, the film is anchored by its three, strong performances. Corey Stoll is excellent as the liberal lawyer now doing corporate work, and wondering if he left some important things behind in order to climb up the ladder quicker. And Karen Pittman gives voice to the smart, ambitious, community activist – now a successful politician. She wants to do good, clearly. But will helping out this one person, again, keep her from helping others later?
Michelle Veintmilla has the hardest part as the paroled felon. Belber seems to have a little more trouble getting inside the head of a poor teen from the barrio than he does two do-gooding liberals. Her lines can sometimes sound stilted, her emotions faked.
But Veintmilla almost turns those problems to her advantage. After all, she’s playing a survivor. So of course she’s going to tell powerful people what they want to hear. Of course she’s going to try to manipulate them to get what she wants, or at least avoid what she doesn’t.
Spare in approach, but layered in meaning, What We Do Next definitely depends on a lot of talking. But the best conversations may be the ones you have after you finish watching it, and debate what you would have done under the same circumstances.