2023 | rated R | starring Stefanie Estes, Olivia Luccardi | written & directed by Beth de Araujo | 1h 31m |
In my review of The Bubble I talk about the fake movie inside that movie as a Straw Movie. A movie that functions like a political debate straw man to deflect real criticisms of movies by setting up something obviously bad and knocking it down. Soft and Quiet is a Straw Movie in it’s original political meaning. It’s a movie that presents it’s villains in the most absurd and reality-detached light and easily knocks them down. For as provocative as this material reads on paper, the movie manages to be as gutless and safe as possible.
Soft and Quiet is built around a twist revealed very early. I’ll quote from first-time director Beth de Araujo’s cagey summary: It’s about “an elementary school teacher who organizes a mixer of like-minded women, when she encounters a woman from her past leading to a volatile chain of events”.
Before we decode this summary, I’ll give you a hint. The villain is the most obvious, easily agreed upon and frequently used movie antagonist in the last 80 years.
It’s about an elementary school teacher (Stefanie Estes) who organizes a mixer of like-minded women (who form a group called the Daughters for Aryan Unity) , when she encounters a woman from her past (they get into a fight in a grocery store) leading to a volatile chain of events (they decide to play a prank on her that naturally goes horribly wrong). Yep, they’re Nazis.
Produced by Jason Blume’s Blumehouse on a shoestring budget, director de Araujo attempts to lend some cinematic visual style to the low-tech proceedings by delivering the illusion that the film is done in a single-take and in real time. It’s Rope, Children of Men, Russian Ark, Birdman and on and on. It does nothing to illuminate the themes of the film other than to trap us on the hip of these horrifically obnoxious people for 90 minutes. People, who even if they weren’t Nazis, are so self-involved (at one point gushing over their leader’s model good looks) they would still be insufferable. It becomes all the more taxing in the third act when it unravels into the usual Crime Gone Wrong film and the dialog devolves into all the characters screaming at each other, captured in shaky camera.
The film is structured around about 3 large conversation set pieces, the first of which is what everyone is going to be talking about, a meeting of the Daughters in which they take turns talking about how frustrated and put upon they feel by liberals, minorities, feminism and the world that doesn’t think they have problems too. The inch-deep dialog hits all the auto-generated buzzwords without a thought given to any of them. They say that All Lives Matter and they throw up the OK sign as if de Araujo truly thinks this is a real Nazi thing and not a Reddit hoax. You’re supposed to be appalled and say that it’s “topical” and that it’s “real horror”. You’re supposed to have a Pavlovian reaction to this automat of canned phrases with your own automat of canned phrases. The characters in this movie say things people don’t actually say and do things nobody actually does for reasons nobody actually believes. This is Hollywood middle-American fantasy from a thousand feet in the air, no different than the people who watch Borat and assume they’re really seeing Kazakhstan.
There are several scriptwriting rules about how to most effectively handle these kind of incendiary topics. That the most compelling villains don’t know that they’re villains. That the most interesting political movies are not the ones where the writer has a solid opinion about a topic, but the topics the writer has not yet formed an opinion on. Where they work through their questions through the back-and-forth events of the story. Soft and Quiet pitches all that out the window for a simple, black-and-white caricatures. Let’s just ask the most basic question: why would someone in 2023 adopt an entirely failed ideology that gets them nowhere in society? That might be an interesting story. de Araujo can’t even speculate.
The film is too glib to be actually frightening, too poorly shot and performed to be entertaining and too shallow and detached to be insightful about the current state of the world it believes it has captured. It succeeds in being grossly unpleasant without any upside or payoff. Even stranger, it has a misogynistic streak, with a cast of entirely hysterical women that only keeps from running off a cliff when a man shows up to calm them down. It’s a political Straw Movie, designed to hit easy targets and avoid the tougher and more interesting topics. Designed for us as the audience to knock down and decry and pat ourselves on the back for decrying. Anyone that thinks that Soft and Quiet is anything more, is simply being played.