Cinema Signal:

Human Sexuality and the Family

by James W. Maddock, Gerhard Neubeck, M. V. Sussman
"Freud may have exaggerated when he emphasized the pervasive erotic atmosphere of the family as the most powerful force in childhood socialization..."

. "The Quiet"

In two respects, director Jamie Babbit's movie is beautiful. These elements are visual: the two female leads and the exquisite high definition (digital) cinematography by M. David Mullen. There, the beauty ends, because this is a story about very dark dysfunctionality of an American family with the kind of secrets that imparts ugliness to the concept of marriage.

Nina Deer (Elisha Cuthbert, "24," TV) is a high school cheerleader whose blond good looks and slender athletic body ensure popularity while implying some kind of perfect life and easy future. Her close association with loose, elitist gal pal Michelle (Katy Mixon), who wants nothing more than a role in the hay with school hunk Connor (Shawn Ashmore, "X-men"), hasn't seemed to rub off on Nina. For all her cheerleading set knows, Nina is the school virgin.

But, any assumptions about innocence and purity is an illusion.

It would seem, at first, that Nina's primary problem is Dot (Camilla Belle, "The Ballad of Jack and Rose"), a hearing-impaired orphan of Nina's age that Nina's folks, Olivia and Paul (Edie Falco and Martin Donovan) adopted and who, silently, attends the same school. Dot is aloof and troubled, which is explained in her narration about her self-identity disappearing when she's in a room with more than one person. But, her silent, elegant allure exerts a steady influence on those around her even as Nina disses her over what she regards as Dot's limitations. But, isn't there more to this apparent mockery, like meeting the challenge of a new compeitor on the block?

When the family assembles for dinner, the strange dynamics are a prelude to relationships that suggest abnormality, and this is supported by what is happening and not happening in the bedrooms. By the time we get into this aspect of the tale, all pretense of normality is now recognized as facade - one that's slowly crumbling.

Dot begins to reveal her deeper identity when she finds pianos at school and at home on which to play Beethoven etudes. Her narration track indicates the depth of her knowledge and understanding of the hearing impaired German genius and her playing indicates concert level training. But, can she hear what she's playing any more than Beethoven did?

Discovering her playing leads to Connor's increased fascination and attentions and to Nina's grudging respect, as revelations of secrets flow into a jet stream of anger, retribution and hostility. Family, indeed.

Suffering most in all this is Edie Falco ("The Sopranos"), and I'm referring here to more than her strange role as a mother and wife emotionally choking on betrayal. Her part, as detailed in the press notes, had to be scheduled within a week and shot out of order with the rest of the film, which goes a long way toward explaining the character's weird inconsistency. Is she an iceberg rejecting connubial expectations, a wife frustrated by a lack of attention, or the hot seductress who tries to overtly arouse her partner with a sudden exhibitionist strip-down that comes off as part of another movie?

While the relationship that grows between the two girls comes with moments of awkwardness and bumpy linear development, the premise that guides the screenplay remains fascinating because of the way it trades on beauty and psychological obscurity. It also seems that there's a literary struggle involved - deriving, perhaps, from writers Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft's attempt to resolve their intentions somewhere between immorality and sympathy. They and director Jamie Babbit ("Nip/Tuck," TV) seem to have a tiger by the tail whose instinct is to drive the concept into some very dark and dangerous woods they'd just as soon avoid.

As a result, just about everyone's feelings here are studies in instability, unblendable mixtures of "should I," "shouldn't I" questioning. It's a compound of disturbing scandal with horror movie underpinnings bubbling up to the surface. Martin Donovan ("Weeds," TV), playing daddy, has the 2nd worst of it (after Falco) as he juggles his image around within this exploratory context. Maybe all this crisis of identity is why it's so quiet.

In a story of sexual predation and its effects, an atmosphere of impending horror doesn't exactly hurt. And while it resolves into a mystery of future destinies after the dissipation of the web of lies on which it's supported, it suggests an extreme version of mystery in the minds of many a graduating high schooler about their futures.

As a vehicle for two stunning, upcoming talents, "The Quiet" is intriguing and stylish enough to warrant a look-see, with eroticism as the bait, and the clincher.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner
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Elisha Cuthbert and Camilla Belle
Sisters by adoption; collaborators by necessity.
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