What We Do Next is an effective small-scale thriller about the moral hazards of political power and the prices individuals may pay for the greater good. It feels particularly relevant to our modern times, where awareness of social justice is at an all-time high but still relatively marginal on the greater political landscape. What do real solutions look like? Is compromise an option? Is it worth it?
Sandy (Karen Pittman) is an ambitious progressive politician from the Bronx, representing District 10 to great popular success. She has eyes on further office and stridently pushes messages about helping unheard voices matter to the system once again. Her past as a social worker informs her present ambitions. If she can attain greater influence, she can then effect broader changes to help her constituents who would otherwise slip through the cracks. Sandy’s empathy is her strength, but it’s also the source of her greatest regret: Fifteen years ago, she loaned $500 to Elsa (Michelle Veintimilla), a young woman she knew in a resource center for abused women. Elsa went on to shoot her abusive father, a crime that landed her in prison for over a decade. Nobody knows Sandy loaned Elsa the money she would use to buy the murder weapon. But on the eve of an election, Elsa comes calling to tell Sandy a reporter has been contacting her with suspicions … and she’ll tell him everything if Sandy doesn’t help her get back on her feet.
Sandy denies knowing Elsa would buy the gun, but that doesn’t mean the story won’t sink her career. The two of them recruit Paul (Corey Stoll), a down-on-his luck lawyer from Sandy’s past who hasn’t had much success, to claim he loaned Elsa the money. It’s not a crime to loan money to somebody, and he wouldn’t end up politically damaged if the story fingered him as the kind samaritan who tried to help a troubled young lady. In exchange for her participation, Elsa lands a decent city government job.
Of course, that’s not where it ends. Not by a long shot.
Writer-director Stephen Belber, along with his trio of actors, weaves a compelling seven-act story that continuously presents three fleshed-out characters who must navigate their personal morals, ideals and trauma to figure out a coherent path through the mess made by their own good intentions. None of the three are stereotypical characters, and this isn’t a story that argues hypocrisy is the end-all of progressive activism. Rather, it captures the complexities faced by many idealistic young politicians face when they try to work within the system to help as many people as possible: Sometimes that’s just not how it works. People get left behind, no matter how tirelessly you work to fix the world. You can’t fix everything. And it hurts.
Pittman, in particular, is fantastic as Sandy, who faces the greatest upheaval of the three characters as she ascends the ranks of New York politics. She genuinely wants to help Elsa but knows in her heart she can help more women like Elsa if she just climbs a little higher, a little faster. Elsa, on the other hand, doesn’t have that luxury; after she finds herself in further trouble, she reaches out to Sandy, which sets the stage for their nastiest confrontation. Veintimilla’s role is much broader, as she does her best to convince Paul and Sandy to stick their necks out for her again and again while dealing with her own personal pain. In lesser scripts, she’d be a villain, but Belber thankfully avoids that crutch.
Really, that’s the key to what gives What We Do Next its thoughtful power. There are no easy answers for Sandy, Elsa or Paul, but they’re asking the same questions asked every day by anyone who cares about enacting change through our convoluted political system. The story is told through the lens of these characters, and by the end, it’s up to the audience to decide whether they agree with those choices.