Opening Friday, “If Not Now, When?” is at its core a soap opera, and it’s notable 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!”), who add their names to an unfortunately short but happily growing list of women of color filmmakers.
The second is that, due to patient, emotional storytelling, it goes well above the typical movie soap opera.
It focuses on four women who have been friends since high school. Tyra is arguably the lynchpin. In a flash back to 2003, Tyra (played by Li Eubanks) 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. Pregnant and suffering in a rotten marriage to a drunken, cheating ex-pro football player, Suzanne is 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”), who calls her “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.
Deidre 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 wobbly hand-held camerawork, a few too many needle-drops, and a silly montage sequence.
They do refrain from over-scoring the film, though when the music does creep in, it creeps a little too loudly.
Yet for the most part, most scenes are simply allowed to breathe, to flow organically as characters feel their feelings. They’re 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 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 audience.)
In a director’s statement, Bass and Good say they wished to explore something rarely seen on movie screens: authentic, dramatic, and non-comedic friendships between Black women. (They cite 1995’s “Waiting to Exhale” as the last real example.)
As “If Not Now, When?” takes place largely within a friendly community, with no outward racial discrimination, it gets the point across that the women’s support system is among the most important things in their lives.
Even though it doesn’t claim to be about big, important topics, it’s perhaps an unexpectedly perfect example of just how and why Black Lives Matter.
If Not Now, When?
Starring: Meagan Holder, Mekia Cox, Tamara Bass, Meagan Good
Written by: Tamara Bass
Directed by: Tamara Bass, Meagan Good
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes