Soft & Quiet Is an American Nightmare in Real-Time

Movies Reviews Beth de Araújo
Soft & Quiet Is an American Nightmare in Real-Time

The polite veneer of white American society erodes to reveal the repugnant racism lurking just under the surface in Beth de Araújo’s Soft & Quiet. This bold feature debut incorporates stylistic and technical choices that most first-time directors would be wisely implored to avoid, with de Araújo presenting the 89-minute film in real-time as one (supposedly) continuous shot. Yet Soft & Quiet succeeds precisely because it adopts these risky narrative elements, intensifying the disquieting anxiety inherent to witnessing an atrocity as it plays out before one’s very eyes. Some will find this unrelenting terror of our times unbearable to stomach, particularly due to the hyper-realism of the central performances. However, Araújo isn’t interested in forcing audiences to bear witness to abject cruelty just for the sake of making people squirm. In depicting the rapid escalation from closeted bigotry to outright hate crime, Soft & Quiet communicates the urgency of identifying and standing up to similarly hateful groups in our own communities, which are never as “secret” as they wish to be.

Kindergarten teacher Emily (Stefanie Estes) tearfully carries a homemade pie as she’s walking off the premises of the small-town elementary school where she works. She’s just received some personally devastating news, but quickly wipes away her tears when she sees a young straggler still waiting for his mother to pick him up. She immediately sports a wide smile and sits next to the towheaded boy, asking mundane questions to pass the time. She playfully asks if the young boy would like to see the pie she’s baked for an imminent afternoon gathering, then offers him the final draft of a children’s book she wrote recently. Just as the child begins reading, she notices a Latina janitor walking past them and immediately shifts her focus. “Go up to her and tell her she is not to mop the floors until after you leave,” she tells the boy. Despite his initial confusion regarding his teacher’s request, he obliges.

It turns out that Emily wants to impart more than the contents of pre-approved lesson plans onto her students. After the boy’s mother arrives, she continues on foot to what’s supposedly an afternoon get-together of “like-minded” women. Utilizing a handheld camera, DP Greta Zozula follows Emily as she walks down residential streets and into a small park, creating a mounting sense of dreadful immediacy. She runs into a young woman named Leslie (chilling standout Olivia Luccardi), able to single her out due to their mutual acquaintance with local convenience store owner Kim (Dana Millican), who awaits their arrival in a nearby church with a few other attendees. In fact, Emily and Leslie are the last to arrive at the inaugural meeting of the Daughters for Aryan Unity, a group of Emily’s own creation meant to address their objections to “multicultural warfare.” As the meeting begins, Emily takes the floor. “There’s no agenda that needs to be accomplished,” she insists after taking a bite of the pie she just lugged across town. It happens to have a swastika sharply carved into the flaky crust (as a joke, she swears), gooey red cherry filling oozing underneath.

While there may not be an “agenda,” it’s clear that these women are charged, eager and ready to share their stewing racial grievances and supposed disenfranchisement. Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta) can’t wrap her head around being passed up for a promotion in favor of a Colombian co-worker; frequent Stormfront browser Anne (Melissa Paulo) reminisces about the days of her daddy’s Ku Klux Klan chapter presidency; Leslie admits that after a stint in prison, she’s simply in need of direction; Kim spews hatred toward young kids of color who hang around her store, throwing in some anti-Semitism to boot. Even when blurting these monstrous takes, each actor is phenomenal, abhorrent and alluring in communicating their respective character’s derangement. The fact that the film is essentially performed as a play, captured sequentially from start to finish, must have been crucial in bolstering the actors’ dramatic sensibilities in such uniformly demanding roles.

Their loud-mouthed hatred quickly draws the attention of a clergy member, who takes Emily aside and tells her to leave with the group. Careful not to kill the vibe, Emily suggests they take off and drink some wine at her place. The camera follows the crowd as they pile into Kim’s dingy SUV for a short ride to her store. During the disturbing events that follow, the film transforms from an uncomfortable study of alt-right transgression to an intensely focused depiction of racial violence. Similarly, the white supremacist women also drop the illusion of “sensible” small talk voiced between bites of colorful cupcakes and masked by polite smiles. They reveal their innermost vitriol, which they have no problem spewing at each other when the opportunity to direct their flustered rage at minorities is no longer immediately possible.

In order to experience Soft & Quiet in its fullest gut-punching, disturbing capacity, it’s crucial to go into the remainder of the film blind. However, it’s imperative to emphasize how unyieldingly brutal the film is in its depiction of a disturbingly realistic hate crime. In all likelihood, these thinly-veiled alt-right ethno-fascists will vaguely remind many (mostly white) viewers of family members, neighbors and Facebook friends. It’s also worth noting that certain cast members, namely Paulo, openly identify as mixed-race themselves, adding a sublime layer of irony to the future of white supremacist ideals of phenotypical “genetic purity.”

Rest assured, though, the film also has its cathartic advantages. It’s evident that de Araújo mines from her own justified fears as a Chinese-Brazilian woman, cinematically realizing one of the worst case scenarios that regularly floods the psyches of marginalized people living in America. For women of color, the threat of violence based on immutable physical characteristics is a continued and constant presence in our society. The director reveals in the film’s press notes that the first day of principal photography coincided with the heinous killing of six Asian women at Atlanta-area spas. “When I got to the set,” she wrote, “I mourned with my actors, said action at 6:34 PM, and did not say cut until 8:00 PM.” The anger, shock and sadness that these events inspire is woven into the fiber of this film, yet it is not resoundingly bleak. On the contrary, Soft & Quiet’s conclusion reveals that people of color will continue to survive, despite the very best efforts of cold-blooded white supremacists.

Director: Beth de Araújo
Writer: Beth de Araújo
Stars: Stefanie Estes, Olivia Luccardi, Eleanore Pienta, Dana Millican, Melissa Paulo, Jon Beavers, Cissy Ly
Release Date: November 4, 2022

Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan

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