The drama “If Not Now, When?” owes more to “Waiting to Exhale” than to the women-centric films of Tyler Perry. That’s a good thing, as well as intentional on the part of its first-time feature directors, actors Meagan Good and Tamara Bass. In Perry’s lessons in female fortitude and resilience — a successful brand of melodrama, or melotrauma — the heroine often tangles with a violent, even malevolent love interest. In this engaging debut, Good and Bass and their appealing ensemble aim for something gentler and truer to the ins and outs of day-to-day, year-to-year, joy-and-heartbreak sisterhood.
Releasing on demand and digital Jan. 8, “If Not Now, When?” offers a portrait of longtime, somewhat frayed friendships. It’s not groundbreaking but, written by Bass, the movie serves as a fine reminder of the pleasures of a female-focused story with the stuff of adulthood at its core. The characters are a little more grown-up, a little less messy, than the gal pals of “Insecure.” As for the menfolk here, they tweak hope or invite disappointment — sometimes both. One betrays trust but doesn’t menace. A number of them wince, then listen. It’s the ladies and the challenges they tussle with that come first.
The movie opens with a clever bit of sass. High school senior Diedre (Meagan Holder) has enlisted friends Tyra (Good), Suzanne (Mekia Cox) and Patrice (Bass) in performing a come-hither dance number she choreographed for a basketball player. Though her friends are mildly embarrassed by the gesture, they’re also game. In many a high-school flick, the guy’s reaction would likely have devastated, instead Diedre walks out of the gym with “nothing ventured, nothing gained” aplomb. It’s a welcome signal.
Before the ladies can move on to other matters (“You can help me with my physics” is one of the movie’s endearing tossed-off lines), an ill-timed event in the girls’ bathroom presses them into service. It also exposes a dynamic in which Tyra is thoughtful, accomplished, but won’t admit she needs help until mid-crisis; Patrice is the pragmatic one; Dierdre is even keeled and nurturing; and Suzanne appears to be the most focused on the markers of success.
When next we see the foursome, they’re adults. Tyra is once more the catalyst. While she did superwoman feats to make a life for herself and her daughter as a single mother, she’s in deep trouble. A baby made an early arrival in that school bathroom those many years ago, and it was now-teenage Jillian (Lexi Underwood) who found her mother unconscious from an overdose of painkillers. Tyra’s husband, Max (Kyle Schmid), called the friends to a hospital room for an intervention.
The connections have become somewhat tattered. After a few years of being out of touch, Suzanne arrives with a solution to Tyra’s woes and a baby bump. A nurse, Patrice doesn’t do much to temper feelings about Suzanne’s seeming superiority. Holder hits a sweet spot as Deidre. She runs her own dance studio, while navigating the care of her bubbly son and the return of her estranged but appealing husband, Jackson. As the ex, McKinley Freeman gives a nuanced turn as a man worth pulling for even as he makes fresh promises and reveals same-old blind spots.
With Tyra begrudgingly in rehab, Bass’s script turns to the other characters and their own crucibles. Patrice must reckon with burgeoning feelings for Walter — a doctor and gentle, enthusiastic suitor portrayed by Edwin Hodge — and a secret that has her donning defensive armor. As directors who act, Bass and Good encourage each performer to seize her moment, to go deep (Deidre/Holder), to collapse (Patrice/Bass) or in the case of Cox’s Suzanne — whose philandering, drinking NFL hubby (Jon Chaffin) is a wreck — if not to chew up the scenery, at least to smash it.
Fans of “Waiting to Exhale” will recognize in Suzanne’s let-loose tantrum an appreciative nod to Angela Bassett’s righteous revenge. Another thing this movie shares with that sisterhood mainstay: an R&B, soul-rich soundtrack. Composer James Perry and music supervisors Sway (Calloway) and Pervis Taylor III (a life coach) call on songs to introduce characters as much as shade mood; just listen to the lyrics. The end credit number, “A Healing” by Maimouna Youssef, strikes a revelatory note.
The title’s quandary about timing has resonance beyond its protagonists wrestling with addiction, ambition, a bad marriage or one’s frailties and possibilities. The filmmaking duo and actors Good and Bass saw an absence in a certain kind of film story and seized an opportunity to make an entertaining drama of recognizable lives. “If not now, when?” Asked and answered.
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