Filmmaker Nathan Silver has delivered four feature films in about as many years, and the latest, “Uncertain Terms,” continues in the style of naturalistic, bittersweet tales. It’s a family affair for Silver, as he often casts his mother, Cindy Silver, and in “Uncertain Terms” he even takes inspiration from her own life story. Silver the matriarch plays Carla, the proprietress of a home for pregnant teenagers, much like the one where she spent some time as a teenager herself, and Silver the director/co-writer makes an appearance as her layabout son Lenny, whose cousin Robbie (David Dahlbom) shows up at a moment’s notice when his life gets turned upside down. The resulting film is a wry, oddly funny, but poignant work that showcases Silver’s laid-back but effective cinematic storytelling style, and talent for shaping performances from non-traditional actors.
Robbie shows up on Carla’s doorstep to cool his heels outside of the city, ignoring his constantly buzzing phone and focusing on working odd jobs around the house. Carla’s got five preggo teen charges living there, and enough to do to keep them all healthy, happy and not at each other’s throats. In residence is the striking and mysterious Nina (India Menuez), whose freckled face gives nothing away, appearing to conceal a turmoil underneath her placid expression. She is at once very childlike and also wise beyond her years, and Robbie is drawn to her, despite her no-good boyfriend Chase, the possessor of a very unfortunate facial piercing and not very much ambition.
Though Robbie strives to avoid seeming predatory amongst the hormonal and boy-crazy girls, they are curious about the mysterious man, particularly the impulsive and aggressive Jean (Tallie Medel) (“It Felt Like Love” teen star Gina Piersanti also appears as one of the home’s residents). Robbie’s in a fragile state too, his marriage in crisis, his hysterical wife besieging him with tearful phone calls. These girls aren’t the only ones lost and alone in the world, saddled with an impending rude awakening of responsibility. Inevitably, his blossoming friendship with and protective instincts over the vulnerable Nina start to cross the line, particularly in the context of Carla’s responsibility for them. What seems innocent enough quickly becomes something else entirely, as Robbie becomes blind to the reality of the situation, focusing only on the possibility and potential he sees in the young girl.
As a writer and director, Silver shines in his ability to extract performances from non-actors, such as his mother, a refreshing and funny presence, constantly spouting random unrelated stories and non-sequiturs (he is also a scream as Lenny himself). He seems attuned to what makes the people around him entertaining or watchable and then draws out that essence in their performance on screen. Cindy Silver is quite the treat to watch, and brings a much needed oddball levity to the proceedings. Even more impressive is the performance by Dahlbom, a non-actor (he shot friend Silver’s “Exit Elena”) who works primarily as a machinist in New York. As Robbie, Dahlbom carries the film, and he is a riveting presence, embodying Robbie’s tightly wound neurotic tension and his deep sorrow at the loss of his marriage, but ready willingness to seek out new possibilities. The guy is a natural, and it’s shocking to consider that this is his first real acting performance.
Silver also has a knack for efficient exposition (the film is also co-written with Chloe Domont and Cody Stokes), cutting into and out of scenes in the middle of action or conversation, creating a sort of vignette feel to the storytelling, as we are offered quick glimpses that almost feel like eavesdropping, whether it’s Robbie on the phone with his wife, or the girls sharing their often devastating pregnancy stories. In this way, information and story beats are revealed in what feels like a very natural and unassuming way, with a gentle swing from serious to funny tones, explosive with laughter or anger from one minute to the next. One part during the climax feels wildly out of place until it is quickly corrected, though for a few minutes one can’t help but wonder if the whole thing is about to go in a very surprising direction. It’s a bit jarring in a film that has a smooth way of unfolding its narrative.
The film is also gorgeously shot, capturing the lush woods and small town vibe in a relaxed style. Silver uses close-ups often, creating an intimate connection with the characters, aided by the many behind-the-head shots as we follow them through their daily lives, their trials and tribulations. This cinematography reflects the themes of a film that concerns itself with the many different daily dramas that we all go through, a theme that seems to pervade Silver’s work. With a deft touch on storytelling, performance, and tone, he stylishly executes an affecting portrait of the all-too-common troubles that affect many of us in “Uncertain Terms.” [B+]