Friday , October 7 2022
Stefanie Estes, Soft & Quiet, SXSW
Stefanie Estes in 'Soft & Quiet' at SXSW (courtesy of Greta Zozula)

SXSW Film Review: Horror-Thriller ‘Soft & Quiet’

Soft & Quiet is a horror-thriller feature film written and directed by Beth de Araújo. Presumably set in a Southern town, the events play out in real time, which gives the movie a striking immediacy.

Events Play Out in Real Time

The opening sequence focuses on elementary school teacher Emily (Stefanie Estes), who reads a pregnancy test in the bathroom and cries. It appears that not being pregnant devastates her. In retrospect, perhaps her upset fuels the emotional explosions that occur later in the film. Emily’s husband confirms this possibility at a crucial turning point.

Somehow, Emily pulls herself together and leaves the building. It’s the end of the school day, and she waits with a young boy until his mother arrives to take him home. When a Black cleaning staffer walks past them into the building, Emily shows her displeasure. We sense that this teacher, whose background and education should make her accepting, is a bigot. Indeed, Emily confirms her racial animus when the boy’s mother arrives, making disparaging remarks about the Black woman to the parent in the young child’s presence.

And It Gets Worse from There

From this point onward, the situation worsens. The film, shot in one take, follows Emily (in a too-long sequence) walking to a nearby church where she meets with like-minded women for what initially appears to be a “coffee party with treats.” That’s the director’s point. These sweet, demure women front with delicacy. They enter “soft and quiet.” But that’s not how they leave.

Conspiratorially, over their dessert, they cement their political race hatreds. Leading them, Emily brands them as the Daughters for Aryan Unity. Ironically, Emily uses her teaching skills to further indoctrinate the women to a rational acceptance of discrimination and racism. And as each of the women sheepishly chimes in with increasingly vile comments, eventually all agree to formulate plans to act against the town’s “enemies.” Emily suggests they can do this with impunity. “We are the best secret weapon that no one checks at the door because we tread quietly.” Yes! The prejudiced come in a pleasing, feminine shape.

Are These Racist Women Just Wannabes?

Can they really presume to distinguish between “legal” citizens and “illegals” merely by “eyeballing” people? With their cavalier enthusiasms, these “sisters” appear to any sophisticated individual as infantile, pathetic wannabes. They “talk the talk,” but will they “walk the walk?” What will it take for discussion to turn into action?

How, we think, can this unsophisticated, naive, meme-spouting group be serious? Their socioeconomic differences inherently divide them. Indeed, one is an ex-convict. The others vary in age and inclass (middle to lower middle). One is a store owner. Do they have the staying power to become a force to reckon with? Or will their own differences implode the group in a year?

Hate Memes Are Dangerous Emotional Stimulators

The educated, economically upscale Emily authoritatively leads. The raging, ex-con Leslie (Olivia Luccardi) with her criminal experience represents the opposite of Emily’s lifestyle and background. By comparison Emily is a wordy, undirected yahoo. But around someone as tightly wound as Leslie, the memes dangerously stimulate her.

The film emphasizes the consequences of memes and words for those like Leslie who seek power and action in a group. Indeed, in Soft & Quiet saying something becomes doing something, especially with the imprimatur of unity stoked by Emily and spurred on by Leslie’s aggressiveness. Eventually, though, Emily’s leadership falls apart in the face of heightened emotion.

A Happy Band of Bigots

Director Beth de Araújo hits up all the tropes and twisted psychotic memes that bigots use to justify discrimination. And she throws in a few details for shock value. For example, at this “gentle” gathering, women delicately eat pieces of the cherry pie Emily baked that’s carved with a Nazi sign for the escaping steam (symbol, irony). Regardless, the substance of their comments when merged with their light-hearted, matter-of-fact delivery revolts us. Respite for the audience occurs when the disgusted church pastor evicts Emily, unbeknownst to her happy band of bigots.

Emily suggests they switch their venue to her house. Symbolically, they leave the pastor with the mess to clean up.

First, they stop at a convenience store for liquor and snacks to heighten their courage. An altercation erupts between two Asian sisters and one of the newly empowered bigots. They trade epithets spurred by ex-con Leslie, and the situation escalates. Arriving just in time after Emily calls him, her husband diffuses the women’s anger momentarily. He references the women’s behaviors as a potential federal hate crime. His is the voice of reason.

Reverse Tropes, Reverse Stereotypes

Interestingly, de Araújo plays with the reverse trope that the men (pastor and husband) appear saner than these women who seek to be a group force. In Soft and Quiet women’s egos and sense of empowerment submerge male dominance. Likewise, emotion overrides logic. Indeed, the ensemble have found a new unity and power. Unconsciously suppressed by paternalism and perhaps resenting it, they revel in this feeling. They enjoy the idea of pursuing the “objects” of their hatred. As they drive around on a hunt for the Asian women’s home, they whip up each other’s emotions, excited to release them in a bonding act. Their glee is terrifying.

The story reinforces the fact that hatred and racism extend beyond gender. When dark hearts seek psychotic revenge against a perceived enemy, group emotionalism ravages rationality. Empowered by hatred and violence, like flowing water race hatred pools and drowns all who swim in it. Tragically, as the leader, Emily has the power to effect change. Instead, after she stokes their rage and empowers their unity, she can’t stem the inevitable. Leslie takes over.

Dim Lighting Proves Problematic

The dark cinematography in the last 15 minutes of the film doesn’t work well. The same is true in the car-ride hunt for the Asian women. The one-take technique, a great idea, has its limits. Relying on sound effects without adequate lighting and visuals in both segments mutes the overall construct and themes. Yes, darkness takes over, but the camera process defuses the powerful symbolism. Also, to suggest Emily’s negative pregnancy test as having spurred her rage against others seems extreme, confusing, distracting.

The film reveals the brutal underbelly of how hate groups begin. Soft & Quiet reveals how an incident can escalate into horror, even for the individuals enacting it. Unfortunately, the technical aspects of the film don’t manifest the director’s complete intention. If they had, a fuller impact might have been realized. Instead, the message presented to me seemed on the edge of exploitation.

A Stark Warning

Despite these issues, kudos go to the director and cinematographer for the courage of their efforts with a difficult camera process that delivers as best it can. The cast is diabolically good. This film will turn off many and perhaps draw in more. Hopefully, the gruesome Soft and Quiet will alert the audience to the silky, sweet horrors of female race hatred. Exemplifying such “soft and quiet” hatreds, Ginny Thomas’ leadership position in helping amass participants in the January 6th attack on Congress comes to mind. The obvious antithesis of “soft and quiet femme fatales” are the ranting, gun-toting Republican representatives Lauren Bobert and Marjorie Taylor Green.

The film explores the ugly and revolting presence of this divisive indecency. It presents doublespeak: “evil” is “good,” “kindness” is “weakness.” Finally, Soft & Quiet shows how memes propagandize weak minds toward action. Women as weapons remain critical components of hate movements. Calling out soft brutality and standing against it, the loathsome content of Beth de Araújo’s thriller sounds a warning.

For VOD check Blumhouse Productions and for updates on screenings check the IMDB website.

About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, playwright, novelist, poet. She owns and manages three well-established blogs: 'The Fat and the Skinny,' 'All Along the NYC Skyline' (https://caroleditosti.com/) 'A Christian Apologists' Sonnets.' She also manages the newly established 'Carole Di Tosti's Linchpin,' which is devoted to foreign theater reviews and guest reviews. She contributed articles to Technorati (310) on various trending topics from 2011-2013. To Blogcritics she has contributed 583+ reviews, interviews on films and theater predominately. Carole Di Tosti also has reviewed NYBG exhibits and wine events. She guest writes for 'Theater Pizzazz' and has contributed to 'T2Chronicles,' 'NY Theatre Wire' and other online publications. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She professionally free-lanced for TMR and VERVE for 1 1/2 years. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely, Ph.D. Her novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers' will be on sale in January 2021. Her full length plays, 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics or How Maria Caught Her Vibe' are being submitted for representation and production.

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