March 19, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Stephen Belber
Some language in Spanish with no subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “What We Do Next” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and Latin) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: An ambitious politician and a corporate lawyer face ethical dilemmas stemming from their connection to a murder committed by a recently released prisoner.
Culture Audience: “What We Do Next” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in suspenseful and above-average dramas that realisitically address uncomfortable issues related to crime and identity politics.
“What We Do Next” is a superbly acted and well-written drama that tackles issues of race, gender and social class in American politics and the U.S. criminal justice system. Michelle Veintimilla, Karen Pittman and Corey Stoll give compelling performances. The movie takes a hard-hitting look at all these issues from three different perspectives, without making the narrative too cluttered or messy. And with a total running time of 77 minutes, “What We Do Next” is just the right length to tell this gripping story.
If the movie looks like a cinematic version of a play, that’s because writer/director Stephen Belber originally intended “What We Do Next” to be a play, according to what Belber says in the “What We Do Next” production notes. There is a small number of locations in the dialogue-driven movie, while the cast has a small number of people. The three main characters get nearly all of the screen time. All the other cast members in the movie are extras.
“What We Do Next” (which takes place in New York City, but the movie was actually filmed in Louisville, Kentucky) begins with a scene of a concerned community organizer named Sandy James (played by Pittman) having a difficult conversation with a frightened and distraught Elsa Mercado (played by Veintimilla), who is 16 years old at the time. It’s a conversation that becomes the catalyst for the turmoil that happens in the three main characters’ lives.
Sandy asks teenage Elsa, “How does it make you feel?” Elsa replies, “Like I fucking hate him.” Sandy then asks Elsa, “Does he hurt your brother?” Elsa heistantly nods and then says, “But not what he does to me.” Sandy offers to contact child protective services for Elsa, but Elsa doesn’t want that to happen.
“They’re just going to split me and my brother up,” Elsa says of child protective services. Sandy tells Elsa, “You do what you need to do to survive. You need to be strong.” The details of what happened after this conversation unfold in layers throughout the movie.
“What We Do Next” fast-forward several years later. The movie doesn’t say exactly how many years, but based on conversations, it’s about 15 or 16 years after this conversation between Sandy and Elsa has happened. Sandy is now a highly respected city councilwoman for New York City’s 10th district. She’s a progressive Democrat who is currently running for the position of speaker of the city council. Her campaign is going well, and she is expected to win.
However, Sandy’s campaign could have a scandal that she doesn’t want people to know about, so she has called a private meeting in her office with corporate atttoney Paul Fleming (played by Stoll), one of only a few people who know about this secret. Elsa is the other person who knows the secret, and she’s recently been released from prison for murdering her father with a gun. Elsa claimed that she killed her father because he was sexually abusing her and physically abusing her younger brother. Elsa received a 16-year prison sentence but has been let out of prison early due to good behavior.
Paul and Sandy haven’t seen or spoken to each other in years. They share a connection with Elsa that is revealed in this conversation: Years ago, when Sandy found out that Elsa’s father was sexually abusing Elsa, Sandy asked Paul for $500 in cash, because she wanted to give Elsa the money. Sandy thought the money was going toward a down payment for Elsa and Elsa’s disabled mother to find a new place to live. Instead, Elsa took the money to buy the gun that Elsa used to kill her father.
During the trial, it was never made clear where Elsa got the money for the gun. However, Sandy is worried this information might come out and would result in Sandy being indirectly tied to the murder. Sandy is concerned because a reporter named Jim Feingold from Slate plans to do an article revisiting this high-profile murder case, not what Elsa has been released from prison. The reporter (who is never seen in the movie) has already contacted Sandy for an interview, but she’s declined to talk to the media about her connection to Elsa. Sandy is convinced that the reporter is trying to dig up dirt on her to ruin her campaign.
Sandy tells Paul: “I’m the council’s leading advocate on gun cntrol, and I unwillingly faciiltated a murder.” Paul knows that Sandy had no idea that Elsa was going to use the $500 to buy a gun. And he thinks that Sandy shouldn’t have her political career ruined over a misunderstanding that could be blown out of proportion. He volunteers to tell any media person who asks that he was the one who gave Elsa the cash, without knowing that she was going use the money to buy a gun.
Paul says to Sandy: “I’d like to help you on your misson, which is helping people, including Elsa, who’s done her [prison] time, and doesn’t deserve to get caught up in some bullshit scandal aimed at your integrity. You’re on the right side of every issue.” He adds this comment about this seemingly noble gesture to take responsibility for what Sandy did: “It’ll help me look good too.”
And just how do Sandy and Paul know each other? They had a fling years ago, around the time that Sandy knew Elsa. Paul was married at the time (he’s now divorced, with a 9-year-old son named Theo), and Sandy was apparently one of several women he was sexually involved with when he was married. Paul won’t reveal to Sandy the details over why he got divorced, but he tells Sandy that he was mostly to blame for the marriage’s failure, which is basically saying that his infidelity was one of the main reasons for the divorce.
Observant viewers will also notice a part of the conversation where Sandy mentions she was a “side piece” for a woman who was also sexually involved with Paul. Sandy doesn’t label her sexuality, but she tells Paul that she’s currently in a live-in relationship with guy named Dan, and she doesn’t divulge much more information about this relationship. Paul mentions that he lives alone in New Rochelle, and his ex-wife has full custody of their son Theo. Although Sandy and Paul compliment each other during their conversation, neither is interested in rekindling anything sexual between them.
And what is going on Elsa, now that she’s been released from prison? A pivotal scene in the movie shows Sandy and Paul meeting with a now-adult Elsa (also played by Veintimilla) in an unoccupied warehouse, not far from Sandy’s office. Sandy and Paul chose this location because it’s a secret meeting. Sandy and Paul tell Elsa that if anyone asks her who gave her the money for the gun, Elsa needs to say that it was Paul, not Sandy. At first, Elsa refuses this request. Elsa says she’s trying to turn her life around for the better and doesn’t want to get caught up in lies and a conspiracy that could send her back to prison.
But when street-smart Elsa sees that Sandy is somewhat desperate to cover up the truth, Elsa wants to know what’s in it for her if she does this favor for Sandy. After some shrewd questioning, Elsa finds out what Sandy’s salary is. And instead of taking the low-paying job that Sandy had initially offered to find for Elsa, this ex-con demands that Sandy find her a job that pays at least $75,000 a year. Elsa says she needs this job security because her prison record will make it hard for her to find a good job, and she has family members that she needs to take care of financially.
The rest of “What We Do Next” shows the tension-filled, high-wire act between these three people as their lives become further intertwined and their careers change. It’s enough to say that Elsa doesn’t stay out of trouble for long. She gets into a drunken bar fight with a man because she said that he sexually assaulted her by fondling her breasts without her consent. Elsa punched the man while wearing rings on her hand, and he fell down so hard, he bit off part of the tip of his tongue. (The movie does not show this fight, which is told only told from Elsa’s perspective.)
Elsa was arrested, the man she got in the fight with is pressing charges against her, and Elsa is terrified of going back to prison. And who did Elsa call to get bailed out of jail? None other than Paul. Elsa then goes to Sandy to ask Sandy for an even bigger favor, which leads to the story’s main conflict that becomes a maelstrom of how race, gender and social class play roles in how people are treated and what people are willing to do to overcome negative stereotypes.
“What We Do Next” is a fascinating character study of three “politically liberal” people and how they use prejudice against underprivileged people as both a self-serving stepping stone and as a weapon of guilt. The movie doesn’t pass judgment on any of its characters or the circumstances in which they find themselves. However, if “What We Do Next” had a subtitle for how the characters deal with certain problems, it could be that old saying: “The road to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions.”
Paul has family issues related to domestic abuse that he later reveals in the movie. Whether he wants to admit it or not, Paul likes to play the role of the “white male savior,” even when his own life is far from perfect. Sandy is an ambitious politician who is adamant about maintaining her integrity, because she knows she is under more scrutiny simply because she is an African American woman in a line of work that is dominated by white men. Elsa, who is Puerto Rican, comes from a low-income broken home, and her dysfunctional background might or might not have shaped her volatile personality. Elsa is highly manipulative, and it soon becomes obvious that she has untreated mental health issues.
“What We Do Next” has very authentic dialogue and scenarios that elevate the quality of this movie, which has no-frills direction from Belber. Without the outstanding performances of Veintimilla, Pittman and Stoll, “What We Do Next” would not have the emotional credibility that makes this film worthwhile to watch. Veintimilla has the movie’s most complex performance, since Elsa is a character who can inspire compassion and contempt, often in the same scene.
“What We Do Next” is a movie that doesn’t need a large budget, artsy visuals or elaborate locations to make an impact. The movie has some very powerfully charged scenes that just need the cast members and dialogue to keep viewers riveted to see what will happen. Most of all, “What We Do Next” will make viewers think about how privilege (or lack of privilege) can affect acts of kindness, which sometimes come at a heavy price.
Small Batch Studio Entertainment released “What We Do Next” in select U.S. cinemas on March 3, 2023.