Writer-director Nathan Silver is far from the first filmmaker to rely on a loose, improvised approach to storytelling, but he’s quickly becoming one of the best of his generation. Following on the heels of the prolific Joe Swanberg, but more contained in his approach, the 30-year-old Silver has completed four distinctive features in five years, two of which hit theaters earlier this year, and already has a fifth in the works.
But despite this degree of productivity, Silver’s movies don’t feel like rush jobs; instead, his alternately funny and brooding character studies invigorate routine plots with authentic behavior. His latest, “Uncertain Terms,” epitomizes this tendency.
With features like "Soft in the Head" and "Exit Elena,” Silver has explored lively, intelligent personalities with a mixture of naturalism, humor and often staggering insight into conflicted mindsets. "Uncertain Terms" continues that focus with a tender portrait of thirtysomething Brooklynite Robbie (David Dahlbom) who flees a troubled marriage to spend time in the Hudson Valley at the home of his aunt (Cindy Silver, the filmmaker’s mother and regular collaborator), where she runs a program for pregnant teens.
While the residents express curiosity over their new visitor's backstory, he in turn discovers a potential fresh direction for his life in the company of young faces — which doesn't exactly solve his current problems. Surrounded by a group of young women, the introverted Robbie initially shows discomfort with their curiosity about his situation. But after he offers some moral support for one of the residents — the equally muted redhead Nina (India Menuez) — when she suffers problems with her boyfriend, Robbie finds himself drawn to a dangerous new romantic possibility.
Despite its trim 74-minute running time, Silver takes a patient approach to explore the prevalent anxieties gradually threatening to overwhelm his characters. The serene, woodsy backdrop lends an introspective quality to the narrative, underscoring the ensemble’s disconnect from the world of responsibilities hovering just off-frame. Robbie’s aunt provides the sole voice of reason, a confident maternal figure regularly urging her residents to come up with plans for their livelihoods once their children arrive, while Robbie’s own buttoned-up state slowly comes apart as he reveals his inner turmoil.
When he starts taking an interest in Nina and shares some of his lessons from his recent marital problems, newcomer Dahlbom transforms into a fascinating, multilayered personality, at once confounded by his relationship woes and wise about them. In a candid moment with Nina after rescuing her from another showdown with her boyfriend, he unleashes a rambling monologue about the travails of young love. Justifying the movie’s title, this moment of understated eloquence pierces a mundane exchange with sudden philosophical weight, and it dissipates just as fast. Dancing around melodrama rather than confronting it head-on, “Uncertain Terms” hides its revelations in the textures of each scene. It places drama in the context of everyday life.
Silver’s on shakier ground when fleshing out the bigger picture. The majority of the women at the home remain vaguely defined background figures, with only Tallie Medel (in a noticeably more ebullient role than her leading one as the incest-hungry sister of last year’s “Unspeakable Act”) standing out for her spunky energy in a handful of moments. The pithy competiveness among the group, as well as the mounting romantic tensions, lack sufficient detail to register as anything more than obvious plot devices.
But these shortcomings mainly stand out because the central performances hold such fascination. Dahlbom’s Robbie initially has the characteristics of a silent recluse, until he sheds that armor and shows the underlying reservations behind it. Though she appears in fewer scenes, the similarly poker-faced India (last seen as a love interest in Olivier Assayas’ “Something in the Air”) provides a remarkable contrast to the older character seemingly drawn to her restrained, alluring ways. Their chemistry contains an inherent mystery: Is he taking advantage of her or vice versa? With the expertly realized chaos in the finale, “Uncertain Terms” presents that question while leaving the answer in a fascinating state of ambiguity.
"Uncertain Terms" premiered this week at the L.A. Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.