In the opening minutes of Soft & Quiet, elementary school teacher Emily (Stefanie Estes) sits on a curb with one of her students whose mother is late picking him up. She shows him, but not us, a pie she's made for a woman's group she's attending that afternoon. Once the boy's mom arrives, she makes the short walk to a nearby church, where several other women have gathered. They engage in small talk, then decide to grab a snack to begin the meeting. The camera closes in on that pie. Someone lifts the tin foil off to reveal that a swastika has been carefully carved into the center. This is our first indication that something is very wrong here, and also a warning sign of the harrowing experience the film is about to give us.
Emily has organized an Aryan sisterhood meeting. Sitting in a circle, its members air their grievances toward minorities of every sort. One participant, Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta), complains that a woman of color got a promotion over her. The hard-edged Kim (Dana Millican) nonchalantly drops the n-word into conversation. Seemingly shy Leslie (Olivia Luccardi) visibly grows emboldened by her company, shedding the timid mouse façade and revealing the scope of her own bigotry. Soon afterward, Emily suggests they retreat to her house for wine. The group stops at the store Kim owns, only to have an encounter with two biracial Asian sisters, Anne (Melissa Paulo) and Lily (Cissy Ly). I won't tell you what happens next, except to say that it's shocking and very, very bad for everyone.
Soft & Quiet is built around an all-too-identifiable premise, which is that when you carry so much hatred inside your heart, the potential for violence is ever-present. Emily and the others paint themselves as victims, “good” people trapped in a society where their freedoms are being encroached upon by everyone who doesn't look like they do. Resentments have built up because they don't see people of color or members of the LGBTQ+ community as fellow human beings, they see them as labels and as obstacles to their own happiness. Why, they wonder, must we think of them instead of thinking of ourselves? The film dramatizes how dangerous that mentality is. Much of the dialogue is chilling, as the women use their statuses as wives, mothers, and workers to justify self-generated feelings of persecution.
Directed by Beth de Araújo, the story is presented as a single, unbroken shot that lasts the length of its 91-minute running time. (There may be two or three hidden edits.) Other films, most notably 1917, have used that same technique. Done wrong, it's a gimmick. Here, though, the single take adds a powerful sense of immediacy and urgency. We feel as though we're tagging along on this sickening afternoon/evening, helplessly watching it unfold. Especially during the last half-hour, when the worst of the worst occurs, the movie gives us the sensation of being unable to stop the horror. That's a metaphor for the real world. Will we act to prevent racism and bigotry, or will we stand by silently?
The other benefit of the single-take approach is that it creates suspense in a vital way. All of the actresses have to maintain a high level of intensity for the duration. They didn't get to stop, chill out for a moment, and do another take. Having to hold and then build that intensity ensures that Soft & Quiet never gives the viewer a break, either. From the very first shot until the final cut to black, you are on this ride, with nothing to shatter the illusion that what you're watching is real. Shooting the movie in this manner erases the notion of performance, since the cast members are essentially living the central scenario for an hour and a half. Across the board, they are extraordinary.
We're living in a time when, for various reasons, racists feel empowered to spew their hatred more openly. What happened in Charlottesville in 2017 is just one example. It has become clear that some of the worst people in the country are our friends, relatives, teachers, doctors, political leaders, and even, in a few cases, clergy. Soft & Quiet speaks to the tragedy of our current era. This is a purposefully disturbing thriller that sounds a loud-and-clear call to pay attention. It leaves you shook.
out of four
Soft & Quiet is rated R for disturbing racial violence including rape and pervasive language including offensive slurs. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.