SXSW: Beth de Araújo’s vicious feature debut marries ambitious filmmaking with a gut-punch storyline about the insidious reach of white supremacy.
Emily really, really needs this meeting to go well. After all, the kindergarten teacher’s day has already been beset by problems both large (despite her many attempts, she’s still not pregnant) and small (the obviously illegal janitor at her elementary school had the audacity to do her job when children — little children! who could have slipped on her just-mopped floors! — were still around). Emily (a riveting Stefanie Estes) might not be able to control what she makes with her body or the people who come into her orbit, but in Beth de Araújo’s nerve-shredding real-time thriller “Soft & Quiet,” she’s hellbent on changing what she canall set against the backdrop of the most terrifying film of the year.
With the workday over and some casual racism behind her, Emily is about to set out on a very important endeavor: gathering a gaggle of like-minded white women for what she hopes will be the first meeting of many. She’s got everything set: a curated guest list, a sunny room in a local church, a large pot of coffee, and sweet treats galore. Yes, she really needs this to go well, but even in her most violent, sick, stupid fantasies, Emily could never imagine where this would actually go. De Araújo, however, possessing both incredible filmmaking acumen and some righteous anger, can.
The film’s early reveals are quick, not only a product of the film’s compact running time (just over 90 minutes), but of the very energy “Soft & Quiet” is chronicling. One minute Emily is breathlessly introducing strangers to each other, the next she’s unveiling a whiteboard soon to be filled with “Aryan sisterhood” talking points. The rest of her “club” are prone to the same quickie, icky enthusiasm, swinging from whining about the scourge of multiculturalism to trying to set each other up with “good men,” complaining about losing out on jobs to women who clearly snagged the gig because they’re “brown” (no word on said complainer’s actual professional merits), and shouting about how “all lives matter.”
The anger is unmistakable. The ignorance is shocking. And, built inside de Araújo’s remarkable framework, you can’t help but feel suffocated by the entire thing. Trapped. sick. It will only get worse and, oddly enough, better, as the film unfolds like a runaway train, a rapid-fire thriller and drama and horror film all in one, both breathless and breathtaking.
When the women are suddenly forced out of their hard-won meeting space, Emily invites everyone back to her house—for wine! (That de Araújo so believably holds on to their seemingly regular-gals-just-hanging-out vibe is one of the film’s many strengths.) This clever narrative twist allows de Araújo to drop a couple of characters who can’t come along and tighten up what will become our core foursome before shoving them all into a new space, ripe for conflict.
Emily’s hair-trigger temper — she’s not just prone to falling into fury at the drop of a hat, she’s just as quick to start sobbing, a totally unpredictable person who takes up a lot of space — is scary enough. Now meet the ladies coming with her: long-time pal Kim (Dana Millican), who fires off racist and sexist talking points with shocking ease; newbie Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta), who really doesn’t hate anyone, except for the various minorities she giddily lumps into one bad bunch; and the jittery Leslie (Olivia Luccardi), who truly has nothing to lose.
When the fired-up foursome run into a pair of mixed-race Asian sisters, Anne (Melissa Paulo) and Lily (a heartbreaking Cissy Ly), they’re so juiced up from their mutual hatred and hell-yeah energy that it’s only a matter of time before something combustible happens. What’s staggering is how little time it takes, how horrible everything becomes, and how de Araújo threads everything together for a film destined to set pulses (and tempers) racing.
De Araújo and her cast and crew shot the film from start to finish four evenings in a row, with the filmmaker picking one of those complete takes to serve as the final film. The gambit pays off in a myriad of ways; not only does the real-time conceit keep the tension high, but its high-wire demands make clear just how talented of a filmmaker de Araújo is. Even moments when she and cinematographer Greta Zozula are resting on one character’s face or honing in on a single prop (good luck forgetting about Emily’s pie), likely in service to allowing the rest of the cast and crew to assemble new set-ups just off -camera, are suffused with both artistry and drama.
Not every element of the film flows with as much horrifying believability, and a handful of contrivances temporarily infringe on the wicked energy of “Soft & Quiet,” from Emily’s outfit (would a kindergarten teacher really wear a pale pantsuit?) to the wacky coincidence that brings the sisters into Emily and company’s immediate orbit (chalk it up to small town life and move on, there’s so much more here serving of attention).
But by the time “Soft & Quiet” zips into its non-stop final half, with Emily and pals cooking up a plan to get a “revenge” on the innocent sisters through a little breaking and entering (and, then, of course, more) that fades away. All that matters is the now, as stomach-churning and, yes, as timely as it all is. Eventually morphing into something of a home invasion thriller, even that admittedly basic framing — all the better to obscure the gut-punch shocks that de Araújo unfurls in rapid fashion — can’t quite impart the deep-seated terror the film will inspire in its audience. Who is in your house, you might wonder, and were they always here? What will they do? What will they destroy? Who will they hurt? And how might we ever get them out?
“Soft & quiet” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.