Soft & Quiet doesn’t know what to do with its thorny subject matter and disturbing imagery, allowing it all to just linger on screen as wanton shock value.
In her The Moth podcast story “Don’t Move,” writer/director Beth de Araújo recounts witnessing a sexual assault at a very young age. As she describes it, the incident left de Araújo with an indelible fear, mutating into paranoia, anxiety, and panic attacks which lingered well into her college years, and eventually led her to train and work as a witness advocate for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. Coming in at just under seventeen minutes, her poignant narrative packs a punch and highlights the author’s innate ear for the rhythms of storytelling. This deeply rooted material would become the basis for de Araujo’s Josephine, a screenplay that was set to be her directorial feature debut until Covid struck. Unfortunately, faced with the challenges of a pandemic film shoot, de Araújo pivoted to fashion her feature debut into something more straightforward, more contained, and far more disturbing. Soft & Quiet takes its thematic inspiration from the viral incident of Amy Cooper, the white woman who attempted to weaponize 9-1-1 against a peaceful Black birdwatcher who asked her to leash her dog on a Central Park trail, the confrontation taking place on the very same day that Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. The director’s screenplay is propelled by a raw fury at the connective tissue between the two moments, taking as its central concern the way that white fragility can prop up unspeakable violence. Soft & Quiet, however, attempts to massage into this charged emotional foundation a healthy dose of genre trappings and the ambitions of a real-time, single-take shoot under the auspices of Blumhouse. The result is a misguided film that traps its audience inside of a hate crime, uncertain how to tie up the difficult array of themes it broaches, as it barrels on its repulsive trajectory; a caustic sadism on autopilot.
The film opens on Emily (Stefanie Estes), an ostensibly ordinary — barring a faint resemblance to Olivia Wilde — white suburban elementary school teacher. However, things quickly move toward the uncomfortable as we watch her engage in an unsettling bit of restrained racial resentment in the school parking lot. de Araújo is at her strongest while subtly exploring how ingrained the poisonous ideology of white supremacy is within typical white suburban spaces, and to her credit, Estes, alongside a strong ensemble cast, does well to embody the push and pull between racist microaggressions accepted in such communities and the violent endpoints which form the natural conclusion of the ideology. This is most effective in the film’s first half, which centers on a meeting of women organized by Emily under the banner of the “Aryan sisterhood.” The real-time shoot, shot over just four days of feature-length single takes minimally composited together, emphasizes an uncomfortable sense of the hyperreal, first in capturing the real-time transition as the women’s cautious racial grievances shift toward proud endorsements of the KKK, and further on, the explosion of nightmarish violence which follows. Particularly strong too is an emphasis on the use of humor as a cloak for vociferous and explicit racist behavior, from Emily’s “joke” of a pie emblazoned with a swastika to her a “cheeky” Nazi salute in the parking lot, and again culminating in the gutting assault of the second half, repeatedly contextualized as a “prank.”
Sadly, these ideas remain as tepid undercurrents, never quite explored past the opening, especially as the film hurtles toward blunt violence. One can’t help but think of Michael Haneke’s famous quote about Funny Games: “Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn’t need the film, and anybody who stays does.” One repulsive bit of racism is delivered after another with the affect of revelation, but for whom is any of this revelatory? The prevalence of this type of cloaked bourgeois racism from white women is so ubiquitous that we already have the Karen shorthand for it. In fact, rarely does a day go by without another viral video depicting either this or some other atrocity of American white supremacy across a swath of social media feeds. Ultimately, a key difference between this and Haneke’s fourth-wall-breaking home invasion is that the latter intentionally calls into question the complicity of the audience, whereas de Araújo’s film, awkwardly jamming its satire into a high-octane thrill ride, is unprepared to handle the thorny subject of audience intention, expectation, and entertainment. The most upsetting part is the ambivalence with which Soft & Quiet indulges in its vivid and lengthy depictions of abuse, torture, and sexual assault. Its smug, matter-of-fact portrayal of a stomach-churning hate crime thuds along in tandem with paint-by-numbers screenplay beats and dragged on by the long-take gimmickry. The raw nauseating power of these images is used wantonly for shock value, an escape hatch for a screenplay that doesn’t know where to go next. It’s a shame that the solid performances and admirable direction are put to work for an exercise that seems to simply circle the drain, but those wondering why de Araújo would chart out such a brutal course in the first place might find a hint in “Don’t Move”: “’Finally talking about it made it feel like I was actually getting to control the narrative,’ de Araújo says, ‘instead of letting it control me.”’