“Who We Are Now” tracks two parallel narrative lines that we understand will probably curve and intersect. Julianne Nicholson’s Beth is an ex-con whose struggles to find stability in her new civilian life are not helped by her fixation on gaining custody of her son. (Her child has long been in the care of her younger sister, who has not even let him know that Beth, whom he calls an aunt, is actually his mom.) Emma Roberts’s Jess is a young lawyer working for a public defender, her civic-mindedness inhibiting her from seeking better-paying law work and alienating her more materialistic-minded family.
The two catch glimpses of each other early on. Beth’s initial representative is Jess’s boss, a passionate practitioner played by an appropriately worn-out looking Jimmy Smits. Beth’s penchant for bad decision-making (exemplified by her job interview with a restaurant manager played by a weaselly Jason Biggs) makes Jess’s eventual determination to take on her case look like a weird hiccup in the lawyer’s common sense. But the action speaks eloquently about the corner into which Jess has allowed herself to be pushed.
The writer-director Matthew Newton’s film is about the idea of justice in everyday life, as epitomized by a speech Mr. Smits’s character gives to the doubtful Jess in a key scene. Superbly acted and confidently shot, “Who We Are Now” delivers substantial dramatic pleasures while posing pertinent questions.