How to discuss Soft & Quiet without saying too much about Soft & Quiet? There is one left-field blindsiding moment early on that changes the entire complexion of the film and which goes on to drive everything that happens in the increasingly fraught and, dare I say it, hysterical second half. Much screaming, much very bad behaviour.
And it all starts so nicely. With Emily (Stefanie Estes), a kindergarten teacher of butter-wouldn’t-melt blandness who has organised a meeting of fellow concerned women in the white-picket US town where she lives.
At this inaugural meeting, Emily writes the club name, the Daughters for Aryan Unity, up on the whiteboard, before adding underneath, “Feminine not feminist.” Defending traditional male/female gender roles and her own position as a Barbie doll incarnate seems to matter quite a lot to Emily.
Another of this new group is angry that, at her job, a Colombian woman has been given promotion ahead of her, all in the cause of “Diversity!… Inclusion!” Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta) spits. “It’s because she’s brown.”
Yet another, emboldened, reveals that she’s been a member of the KKK her entire life. We hear that “all lives matter”. There’s a rant against the 1960s, which are to blame for so much of the collapse of traditional values. Someone has something to say about the “Jew banks.”
As the meeting breaks up KKK Jess (Shannon Mahoney) gives a Nazi salute out in the car park. The women titter sheepishly and Emily tries one out for herself, possibly half-heartedly.
What these women are actually bemoaning, though none of them puts it this way, is that they – the white folks – have lost control of the narrative. This used to be their country. Now, not so much.
The second half of Beth de Araújo’s debut feature shows the women regaining control of the narrative, with consequences they hadn’t quite expected, after some racist taunting of a pair of local brown-skinned girls (“What are you anyway,” one of the white women taunts, wrinkling her nose at the ethnically imprecise Anne and Lily), and the film switches from being a fly-on-the-wall mock-doc to something altogether more grand guignol.
It’s Araújo’s debut feature and what a grippingly grim, anxiety-inducing ride it is. I watched it online and so was able to pause it and take a few paces around the room at key moments. I cannot imagine the effect of watching it in one grand chunk, without moments to take a breath.
It is a brilliant exercise in the control of mood and tension building, driven to quite an extent by the handheld camerawork of Greta Zozula, who combines unmediated “you are there” in-your-faceness with unobtrusively choreographed camera movements so that even when things get frantic the action is easy to follow. Zozula also did impressive things in the 2020 drama Materna, another female-focused film.
A horror movie is where we end up, and it actually is a bit of a relief compared to what came before. Miles Ross’s score, reassuringly jangles away, comforting with faintly familiar musical tropes. Unsettled is fine compared to being put on the rack.
Soft & Quiet, what an ironic title, but that’s the stealth tactic Emily is going to use to insert the women’s views into wider society. Perhaps by starting a publishing imprint, or a school. Where things end up is with death and screaming in a cabin on a dark night, Araújo’s “this is where that sort of talk takes us” fingerwag.
And yet. Are these bad women? Or women whose hold on society has become more precarious and so have looked about for a dog to kick? There’s a fingernail of generosity in Araújo’s portrait of them and in the gutsy way the talented cast play them. We identify, to some extent at least, with these white racists. Which is where the film gets its extraordinary power.
Soft & Quiet – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022