Combustible Celluloid
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With: Meagan Holder, Mekia Cox, Tamara Bass, Meagan Good, Kyle Schmid, Lexi Underwood, Jon Chaffin, Joelle Ashley, Li Eubanks, Niles Fitch, McKinley Freeman, La'Myia Good, Iyana Halley, Josephine Lawrence, Amanda Mayfield, K.J. Powell, Valarie Pettiford, Amber Chardae Robinson, Joshua Whitfield, Thomas Daniel Smith, Todd Williams
Written by: Tamara Bass
Directed by: Tamara Bass & Meagan Good
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 111
Date: 01/08/2021

If Not Now, When? (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Group Exhale

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Opening Friday in some theaters, on digital and on demand, If Not Now, When? is, at its core, a soap opera, but it's a notable one for two reasons.

The first is that it is the feature directing debut of actors Tamara Bass (Baby Boy) — who also wrote the screenplay — and Meagan Good (Brick, Shazam!), adding their names to an unfortunately short, but happily growing, list of women of color filmmakers.

The second is that, due to its patient, emotional storytelling, it places itself well above the typical movie soap opera.

Introductions are in order. The movie focuses on four women that have been friends since high school. Tyra is arguably the lynchpin. In a flashback to 2003 (and played by Li Eubanks), she unexpectedly has a baby just before her senior year ends.

Now, Tyra (Good) is addicted to the painkiller "oxy" after a traffic accident a year earlier. Her boyfriend Max (Kyle Schmid) and her friends — Patrice (Bass), Suzanne (Mekia Cox), and Deidre (Meagan Holder) — intervene. She reluctantly checks into rehab.

Suzanne has been largely absent from the group, causing a rift between her and Patrice. In reality, Suzanne is pregnant, and suffering a rotten marriage to a drunken, cheating ex-pro football player. She's ashamed of admitting her unhappiness to her friends.

Meanwhile, Patrice looks after Tyra's teen daughter Jillian (Lexi Underwood, from TV's Little Fires Everywhere) while Tyra is away; she's referred to as "Auntie Patrice." Patrice is single and works as a nurse.

A handsome doctor, Walter (Edwin Hodge), is romantically interested in her, but when she learns of his plans for a big family, she realizes she (biologically) cannot live up to his dreams and runs away before she can be dumped.

Then, Deidre (Meagan Holder) is a successful choreographer and dance teacher, as well as a single mom raising a young son. A pop star hires her to work on a big tour, just as her ex-husband Jackson (McKinley Freeman) tries to get back into the picture and become a family again.

The four women's storylines are nicely balanced, although teen Jillian also gets a few scenes with a charmer named Michael (Niles Fitch, from TV's This Is Us) after she sits in on a few of Deidre's dance classes.

Behind the camera, Good and Bass fall back every so often on short cuts and cliches, including some wobbly hand-held camerawork, a few too many needle-drops, and a silly montage sequence.

They do refrain from over-scoring the film, although when the music score does creep in, it creeps a little too loudly.

Yet for the most part, the majority of the scenes are simply allowed to breathe, to flow organically as characters feel their feelings.

Characters are given the freedom to make discoveries about themselves as they argue, reconcile, advance, retreat, and feel tremendous weights lifted as truths come out.

The moments in which Suzanne confesses her misery to her friends, and the moment in which the stubborn Tyra admits that she has a drug problem — both scenes involving tears — come across as freeing and truthful, rather than cloying.

Of course, traditional soap operas do have a layer of artifice, perhaps making them less raw, and more appealing to a wider crowd.

In a director's statement, Bass and Good explain that, with this film, they wished to explore something that is rarely seen on movie screens — they cite 1995's Waiting to Exhale as the last real example — namely, real, dramatic, and non-comedic friendships between Black women.

If Not Now, When? takes place largely within a friendly community, with no outward examples of discrimination, but even so, it still clearly gets the point across that this support system is among the most important things in their lives.

In its way, even though it doesn't claim to be about any big, important topics, this movie is perhaps an unexpectedly perfect example of just how and why Black Lives Matter.

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