- HIFF2022 Narrative Feature
- Director: Stephen Belber
- Screenwriter: Stephen Belber
- Cast: Corey Stoll, Karen Pittman, Michelle Veintimilla
Premise: A New York City politician climbing the political ladder is forced to navigate her complicated past with a young woman recently released from prison and a corporate attorney with whom she shares an equally complicated history.
What We Do Next, Stephen Belber's three-hander political thriller is an impressive display of its three leads' acting talents emboldened by a sharp script. The film follows three people tied together by an exchange of money sixteen years ago that led to a murder. Sandy James (Karen Pittman) is a highly ambitious New York City politician who was once in charge of a youth center. Elsa Mercado (Michelle Veintimilla) is the young woman who sought Sandy's help to get Elsa and her brother out from under their abusive father. And Paul Fleming (Corey Stoll) is the corporate attorney Sandy loaned $500 from to give to Elsa, who then bought a gun and murdered her father.
Now, sixteen years after the murder, Elsa is being released from prison, Sandy is running for city council, and a journalist is poking around at her connection to the murder.
What We Do Next takes a unique approach to its storytelling with the title card dubbing it "A Film in Seven Scenes." Each scene plays out as a single act, and each act checks in with the three characters as time passes between the scenes. The script tightly connects the drama that unfolds in these scenes, leading to a brilliant showcase of acting from the three leads as tensions mount throughout the greater narrative.
The personal growth these three inextricably linked individuals undergo feels organic and build off the power dynamics presented in the first act in unique and often unexpected ways. The drama is spurred by a conspiracy the three enter into as Sandy asks Elsa to lie about the source of the money she used to purchase the murder weapon. Something to appreciate about What We Do Next's approach to this clandestine meeting is the film's willingness to give the characters their own personal moral standing in the discussion. Sandy sees this as a political favor, while Elsa sees it as a one-sided way for someone in power to work her. It creates a springboard effect that runs throughout the rest of the film without ever really letting up the tension.
Although the first act portrays Paul as somewhat of a passive observer of the conspiracy, his role is anything but that. His willingness to take the heat away from Sandy demonstrates a willingness to help and advocate for others, which informs his goal of getting away from corporate law. The moral quandaries he navigates as the trio sinks deeper into the melting pot with each scene informing on the bigger themes of the piece with brash confidence.
Paul's journey into a more altruistic law career is molded by his interactions with Elsa and Sandy. Moreover, what he witnesses between the two women as pressure mounts on their situation and tempers flare. Sandy and Elsa's skirmishes reveal a broken system propagated by individuals whose personal interests and ambitions outweigh any urge to care for others or help the less fortunate. What We Do Next makes the powerful point that not only are those in positions of power not willing to help those who need them but they may, in fact, be more ignorant of the true nature of those in trouble than they let on in public.
Unfortunately, hypocrisy coursing through the veins of government is not a new tale being spun. However, Stephen Belber has found a riveting method to explore the depths of broken institutions and unresolved issues in the criminal justice system. What We Do Next is a powerful meditation on the failure of institutions and an indictment of those with the power to help but choose not to in service of their own ambitions.