What We Do Next has its world première at the Cinequest’s Cinejoy Film Festival 2022
16-year-old Elsa Mercado (Michelle Veintimilla) has been repeatedly molested by her father for some time, and now that he is starting to get physical with her younger brother too, she is at the end of her tether, but terrified that turning to child services will lead to the two siblings being separated. “You need to survive, you need to survive,” sympathetic community centre worker Sandy James (Karen Pittman) tells her, “You need to do what you need to do to survive.” Then the title What We Do Next appears on screen. Both Sandy’s words and that title suggest that this is to be a film of actions – of people doing what needs to be done in an imperfect, harsh, Darwinian world.
In fact this is just the first of seven scenes (formally promised by the film’s subtitle), and between scene one and two there is a lacuna of sixteen years. After her meeting with Sandy, we never see what Elsa did next – a parricidal act that would put her behind bars – but we hear about it, and about its precursors and precipitants, from multiple perspectives, as her actions have consequences for herself and others extending long into the future. Where Sandy was once a young carer trying to give help to a teenaged girl desperate for it, but uncertain how to do so, she is now more assured and adult, and on the up and up in her pursuit of a career in progressive politics. A councilwoman for New York City’s 10th District, she is currently a candidate for the council’s Speaker – and from there, as her old friend and lover, the corporate attorney Paul Jenkins (Corey Stoll) puts it, “the sky’s the limit: Speaker, Mayor, Senate, White House…” Sandy personifies liberal politics in America.
Yet before Sandy can rise to the power that will allow her to bring about real future change (the word ‘Change!’ is inscribed in the campaigning posters that decorate her office) and to improve the options of other young women in Elsa’s impossible position, she must first erase compromising evidence of her own past rôle in what Elsa did – and so she conspires with Paul and the recently released Elsa in a cover-up from which supposedly all three will benefit equally, if in different ways. Except that there is no ‘equally’ in a world still very much divided by class, sex and race – and soon white privileged Paul, black upwardly mobile Sandy and Puerto Rican damaged, downtrodden Elsa will be locked in a shifting drama where high ambitions and ideals must vie with criminality and corruption, where power dictates truth, and where the ‘greater good’ unfairly demands individual sacrifice.
Drawing upon memories of his early-Nineties experiences as an idealistic but inexperienced substitute teacher in East Harlem, writer/director Stephen Belber originally conceived What We Do Next as a play – and you can see it. Set in multiple indoor locations (Kentucky subbing seamlessly for New York) – with the odd external establishing shot to evoke the Big Apple – this is essentially a three-hander, with the small size of the cast making the shoot possible at the height of the (pre-vaccine) Covid pandemic. Yet where ‘based on a play’ might suggest a stiff staginess, Belber’s film is instead a taut, tight affair, dynamically shot (by Garrette Rose) and densely written. Here all three actors embody characters not only growing and changing on screen along with their circumstances, but expressing their clashing points of view as much through minimal gesture, and even through silences, as through their carefully nuanced words. It is simply a masterclass of subtle performance.
Between them, Sandy, Elsa and Paul unravel a snowballing moral scenario where all must face dilemmas, decide what to do next, and live (or die) with the consequences, within a system that is not just for all. If the film is an accusatory examination of a lasting history of injustice in America, then that ‘we’ in the title is also an inclusive call to arms for a better future that we must collectively choose. Despite the brevity of its duration, Belber’s confronting political tragedy comes packed with thorny ethical conundrums, seething indignation, deep cynicism, and just a sliver of hope for the hard-won possibility of change, however incremental – at least if those who survive live up to their promise to do the right thing.
strap: Stephen Belber’s tense three-handed drama talks through the systemic contradictions in American law and politics
© Anton Bitel