SXSW 2022: SOFT & QUIET is a Showcase of Technique and Terror

Hateful words escalate into hateful actions in this unnerving real-time thriller

It all starts innocently enough: A collective of like-minded women gathered together under the roof of a church. Coffee kept warm in a carafe, donuts and snacks passed around, a freshly baked strawberry pie laid out, and a knife cutsting through the swastika-adorned pastry on top to take a slice. This seemingly genteel meeting is led by Emily (Stefanie Estes), a kindergarten teacher who has already made a small difference that day, telling a kid in her care to chastise an immigrant for daring to do her job as a janitor at the school. Joining her is her close friend and local store owner Kim (Dana Millican), young moms Jessica (Shannon Mahoney) and Alice (Rebekah Wiggins), the young and frustrated Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta), and a new recruit, the rather gung ho Leslie (Olivia Luccardi). After their meeting is cut short, some of the group take up an invitation from Emily to go back to her house. Along the way, they meet up with Emily’s husband Craig (Jon Beavers) at Kim’s store to grab some wine, and, fired up from earlier conversation, they butt heads with two Asian American women, Anne (Melissa Paulo) and Lily (Cissy Ly). Anger, along with a prior history of conflict with Anne, prompts Emily to suggest they teach the pair a lesson—how dare Asian girls talk back to a white woman—by breaking into their house and stealing Anne’s (surely not American) passport. This already dark affair escalates the film to new heights.

Writer-director Beth de Araújo delivers an indelible reminder of how hate can catch fire and spread, in some instances becoming an uncontrollable blaze. This “All Lives Matter” brigade, emboldened by hearing each other speak, takes us from a deeply disquieting roundtable to an intense home invasion thriller. They all have reasons for their bigoted behavior, problems they’re all too willing to tie to the influx of immigrants (with a dose of antisemitism thrown in for good measure), dilution of their stock and moral values—prefacing their comments with the statement that they’re “good people,” of course. They’re mundane monsters with a white board for suggestions on how to perpetuate negative stereotypes about people of color, shield the unity and purity of their American race, and use their “soft” and unexpected positions as white women to further their agenda. Beyond the situation at hand, where small talk turns to hate crimes, the film is very adept at conveying how people of this nature can be planted within our local institutions, such as shops and schools, festering and spreading their vile prejudices through our society.

Beyond the gripping subject matter and performances, Soft & Quiet is notable in its structure and execution. Unfolding in real time, the 89-minute film was shot straight through, four times, over eight days of shooting, with the best take ultimately used. A handheld camera, weaving within the players, follows them from location to location. Clearly admirable levels of prep, rehearsal, and planning, all feed into the intricacies of this deeply perturbing tale. Some might argue that a greater degree of control with some edits and cuts might tighten up the affair, and it is to the credit of the script and performances that it feels like the film might have been as effective without the real-time playout. But there is no denying the effect the approach has in terms of crafting an immersive experience. Soft & Quiet is infused with an unrelenting energy. The tension is palpable, to the point that you feel like gasping for air on occasion. Some particularly brutal moments did precipitate walkouts at my screening, so prepare for discomfort. As things deteriorate, we witness power shifts, manipulations, maneuvering, panic, and even hints of psychopathic tendencies emerging. The script fluidly introduces the elements and deftly builds this combustible affair. The film is replete with talent and a hella committed cast who gamely plunge into this process and terrifying headspace. Impressive sound design and a score from Miles Ross reinforce the discordant feel of the situation these women made for themselves, while cinematographer Greta Zozula makes tremendous use of space and light in what was undoubtedly a phenomenal logistical challenge. Soft & Quiet is a real-time revelation from de Araújo, who delivers ambitious, engrossing, and truly potent filmmaking.

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