While not straying far from its obvious stage roots, “What We Do Next,” a wiry, tightly calibrated morality play, also never strays from the decidedly contemporary issues at its complex core.
Criminal justice and political ambition collide with race and class distinction in this intriguingly tangled web of a low-key thriller from writer-director Stephen Belber, which takes its various hot-button subjects in an increasingly claustrophobic grip.
At the centerpiece of the reserve, deftly acted three-hander is Karen Pittman’s Sandy James, a black New York city councilor and social justice crusader whose aspirations are aimed squarely at the mayor’s seat.
But there’s a hitch to her ascendancy in the form of Elsa (Michelle Veintimilla), a young Latina whom Sandy had loaned money to years earlier to help the then-teen get away from her abuser.
Sandy, an outspoken gun control advocate, insists at the time that she was unaware that the $500 she gave Elsa was used to purchase a gun, which Elsa then used to kill her father.
While that information didn’t come out during Elsa’s trial, 16 years later, on the eve of her release from prison, an intrepid journalist who re-examined the case could effectively put the brakes on Sandy’s ladder-climbing if Elsa found out the source of that loan. to reveal.
Enter white knight Paul (Corey Stoll), a divorced corporate attorney and former flame of Sandy who offers to take the blame as the one who personally gave Elsa the money. But when they get to Elsa before the journalist, the emboldened ex-con expects something in return, namely a well-paying job.
Unsurprisingly, the quid pro quo doesn’t stop there, as both Sandy and Paul get caught up in Elsa’s devious machinations.
While the script may be guilty of over-exposition, especially in the earlier scenes, the movie, which is less than 80 minutes long, uses its time wisely.
To Belber’s credit, the lean, stripped-down construction of what he calls “a moral maze in which well-meaning people get lost” owes as much to necessity as to conceptual design.
Filmed in 2020 over a week at the height of the pandemic, and preceded by extensive Zoom rehearsals, the social distancing requirements ultimately make for a sparse, isolating environment unencumbered by superficial distractions.
Caught by cinematographer Garrett Rose’s oppressively tight framing, the cast is given little room to maneuver, yet it’s a credit to the talent involved that even when you think you know where things are going, they sidestep the predictable on several occasions.
Particularly compelling is Pittman, whose character’s naked ambition, already thinly disguised under a cool reserve, threatens to burst through the widening cracks in her increasingly complicated relationships.
As is the case for her fellow deeply contradictory protagonists, “What We Do Next” ultimately suggests that there is no clear path to redemption.
‘What We Do Next’
Duration: 1 hour, 17 minutes
To play: Starts March 3, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; 8 AMC Burbank City Center, Burbank