Soft & Quiet


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Soft & Quiet
"The easy flow of de Araújo’s film and the intensity of its characters makes it easy to miss just what an impressive achievement it is at a technical level."

“How can something so delicious be so bad for you?” asks one of the women, of the pie.

There are a lot of sweet things on display at the meeting, which takes place in a sunny wood-walled room above a church. Emily (Stefanie Estes), whom we have followed there from the pre-school where she teaches, is keen to show the others the children’s book she’s writing. She has brought the pie and helps to serve cakes on floral-patterned paper plates. She met Leslie (Olivia Luccardi) along the way and has been reassuring the nervous younger woman. Everybody is warm and full of smiles and musical laughter. This is the inaugural gathering of the local Daughters for Aryan Unity.

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Soft & Quiet arrives in cinemas with a fanfare of well-earned critical praise. It’s a challenge to those who think they know what white supremacy looks like, who imagine that as long as nobody is wearing long white robes and a pointy hood then everything is A-okay. Emily encourages the women in the group to be feminine, not feminist, because that, she says, is what makes men happy. Two of the qualities she sees women as possessing are softness and quietness, a good way to sell ideas which might be a bit much for some people otherwise.

“We are here to support each other through this multi-cultural warfare,” says Emily, whose primary grievance centres on her belief that she is unfairly being made to feel guilty about the advantages which she possesses in life. There follows a round robin or introductions packed with racist dogwhistles and hints at other forms of prejudice. It might feel overblown, but you only need to spend a little time observing certain parts of the internet to recognise that this is exactly how women like this talk. Furthermore, taken individually, many of these remarks could slip by in more general conversation amongst white people, attracting nothing more than a raised eyebrow.

There’s Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta), who is unhappy about her boss promoting a ‘Colombian girl’ ahead of her, refusing to believe that her rival is more skilled. There’s Alice (Rebekah Wiggins), who describes herself simply as ‘tired,’ and thinks that Black Lives Matter is responsible for racial discord. Kim (Dana Millican) blames ‘Jew banks’ for her inability to get a loan. Nora (Nina E Jordan) is actually the daughter of a Ku Klux Klan boss and a member of Stormfront, but, she insists, not the scary monster people expect. Constantly reassuring each other (a process which might also be described as radicalising), the women are determined to see themselves as reasonable people, though there’s a telling moment about a third of the way through when Emily, challenged, is clearly aware that she cannot justify what they have been talking about to an outsider.

What writer/director Beth de Araújo is keen to illustrate is just how easily this soft and quiet form of fascism mutates into violence, and by doing so in an uninterrupted sequence (there are occasional cuts between takes but none of them will jump out at you), she leaves no room for reinterpretation or the making of excuses. Neither does she allow for the claim (frequently made by such avowedly feminine women) that right wing violence is a male domain. There’s only one male character whom we spend any significant time with – Emily’s husband Craig (Jon Beavers) – and although de Araújo drops plenty of hints about him having a criminal past, he strives to exert a calming influence, trying to keep the volatile women out of trouble. Challenging this, Emily uses familiar tools: appeals to his supposed masculine duty to defend her, and weaponised white woman tears.

Between them, the women are carrying a lot of baggage. Emily is upset over a struggle to conceive, and is striving to deny an uncomfortable truth about her brother. Lesley has been in prison, says she’s looking for structure but quickly asserts herself when on more familiar territory. Marjorie has an alcohol problem. Kim has a tendency to panic, and a gun. They are a volatile mob ready to explode at the slightest provocation, and that, to their mind, can be something as simple as different coloured skin.

The increasingly violent action in the second half gives the film a lot of impact and will doubtless help it to find an audience, but in many ways it’s the smaller moments which better illustrate the ugliness of this sort of movement, simply because they are the sort of thing that happens all the time. Emily goes out of her way to make life harder for a cleaner. Later, she reveals that she has been stalking people of colour in the local area, finding out where they live and when they go out. The women’s casual use of racist hand gestures illustrates that they are not as new to their ideas as some of them claim. Efforts at matchmaking and eager conversations about home schooling reveal a conscious, concerted effort to grow and strengthen their group.

The easy flow of de Araújo’s film and the intensity of its characters makes it easy to miss just what an impressive achievement it is at a technical level. It plays out across an hour and a half from the close of the school day until after dark, with theme, locations, props and the positioning of the actors perfectly adjusted to fit the changing light at each stage. The sound is brilliantly captured, ensuring that we hear all the important dialogue as if we were right there amongst the women, even though there are often several people talking at once and they are constantly moving around. Very little other noise intrudes – we hear just enough to keep us informed of significant details. There’s an inspired approach to introducing dramatic music at a key moment close to the end, but for the most part de Araújo uses the pitch and rhythm of the actors’ voices to steer the film emotionally in the way a score traditionally would.

The director has said that she hopes the film will make viewers uncomfortable, and so it might, as we stay close to the troubling characters throughout and the actors do everything in their power to make us relate to them whilst revealing the danger which they represent. If you are approaching this from a different angle, however, and nothing about their behaviour really surprises you, you will still find this compelling viewing – and achieving that takes even more skill. It’s not simply depressing or horrifying as real life encounters tend to be. It feels real, but there’s a poise to it and an inherent energy which makes it much more involving. Soft & Quiet is an important film, urgent even, in the present time. It also heralds the arrival of a considerable talent. Those are two good reasons, amongst many, why you should make sure you don’t miss it.

Reviewed on: 01 Nov 2022
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Soft & Quiet packshot
An afternoon in the life of Emily, a female white supremacist and elementary school teacher.

Director: Beth de Araújo

Writer: Beth de Araújo

Starring: Stefanie Estes, Olivia Luccardi, Eleanore Pienta, Dana Millican, Melissa Paulo, Jon Beavers, Cissy Ly

Year: 2022

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: US

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