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Silent but Deadly: Jamie Babbit’s “The Quiet”

Silent but Deadly: Jamie Babbit's "The Quiet"

Contemporary films taking “The Suburbs” as their setting and subject always make a point of poking holes in that wealthy, white facade of perfection that supposedly plagues America. The intended innovation of “The Quiet” is to present the obligatory collapse of this phony exterior from the perspective of two teenage girls so desperate for male attention that they lie and subject themselves to abuse in order to get it. If this sounds like a refreshing take from a much overlooked female perspective, think again. On the contrary, this film somehow manages to surpass even “American Beauty” (to which the filmmakers no doubt hope their effort will be compared) in hateful representations of women, dopily sympathetic men, and heaps of misplaced misogyny.

The women in this film are awful– especially to each other. Giving the director, Jamie Babbit, and the fledgling screenwriters, Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft, the benefit of the doubt, one can imagine that they set out to expose girl-on-girl cruelty, the horrors of high school, etc. But the supposedly titillating result focuses squarely on only the most despicable aspects of the central female characters, who are given few, if any, chances to redeem themselves. The men, on the other hand, are egotistical and abusive, but at least the film makes an effort to humanize them. The twinned female protagonists in “The Quiet” are so unpleasant and underwritten that all that’s left for them is circumstantial pity — and even that sad little stream runs dry before the film’s end.

Both girls, Nina (Elisha Cuthbert), the enviously popular cheerleader, and her adopted sister, Dot (Camilla Belle), the ostracized deaf orphan who comes to live at her house, are tormented by their fathers, one alive and one dead. As soon as Nina and her dad (Martin Donovan) appear together onscreen it’s apparent that their relationship is sexual. Daddy bides his time until he can sneak into Nina’s room, while his sickly, sexless, drug-addicted wife (a literally wasted effort by Edie Falco) wanders around with blank eyes until she collapses against the wall like a rag doll. Ultimately, the mother is to blame (of course), and by the end of the film we hate her so much that we’re not too bothered that her punishment is disproportionate to her crime.

Much is made of Dot’s “discovery” of the sexual abuse (despite the fact that its secrecy is never believable), but of course she has her own secret too — which would at least lend the film the cheap thrill of a surprise twist if the writers didn’t seem more comfortable in the realm of TV mini-scripts, and if only Belle were a slightly more capable actress. Belle is a lovely girl with a terrible voice, which would seem to make her uniquely suited to play deaf, if only she weren’t asked to provide inane voice over (“When you’re invisible, people can’t see you, but you can’t help seeing other people”; “People always talk about the quiet before the storm; but no one talks about the quiet after the storm”) that makes you wish the writers would have taken a cue from its title.

In “The Quiet,” like “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” (Camilla Belle’s first feature), Belle’s character’s dad becomes her whole creepy world after her mom’s departure, and it’s as though “The Quiet” picks up after his death. Both films are so steeped in hyperbolic daddy/daughter anxiety (What will she do without him? What will he do without her? Do they fuck?) that they seem frighteningly symptomatic of the fetish for kiddie soft-core in our culture at large.

Camilla Belle in a scene from Jamie Babbit’s “The Quiet.” Photo by Ari Briskman, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Too much love courts abuse, not enough love courts insecurity–okay, fine. But the resulting melodrama of daddy love that makes for such a hateful film would probably make for a fine episode of “The O.C.,” where standards are lower and scenes even shorter. The film is written, acted, and shot like a particularly heavy “issue episode” of a bad TV drama, which appears to be director Jamie Babbit’s forte. The press notes brag about the creative use of smoke to mask the use of high-def video, which results in laughably inexplicable smoky interiors lit like a high school production of “Les Miserables.” Like a tarted up teenager, “The Quiet” is self-important, melodramatic, and inhuman. Those looking for something in this particular meat market are better served by turning on the TV.

[Lauren Kaminsky is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

Take 2
By Michael Koresky

Idiotic, overdirected post-Alan Ball gothic-suburbia claptrap. No, no, wait: consciously overdetermined post-“American Beauty” satire? I would say “You decide,” except that I wouldn’t recommend seeing it. With hilariously blown-out, unflattering back-lighting (catching every floating follicle and dust mite, and making each and every actor, male or female, look as hairy as a sasquatch), “The Quiet” ratchets up the pseudo-dramatics with aplomb, until it’s revealed to be nothing more than just another gloppy puddle of teen-porn masquerading as a Lynchian “excavation” of bourgeois suburban underbelly, complete with preternaturally wise nymphettes, a glowering molesting dad (rote work by Martin Donovan), and a catatonically medicated mom (Edie Falco, her face tightened into a leathery fist here, already must regret going embarrassingly full-frontal in such a misogynist mediocrity). Except for a few unintentional belly laughs, “The Quiet” proves too earnest to be satire and too shrilly parodic to be taken even remotely seriously.

That said, once I settled into Jamie Babbit’s hyperbolic rhythms, the film seemed to move from lugubrious to utter camp. Dot is deaf. Therefore Dot’s little-lost-girl voiceovers contain constant nonsensical references to Beethoven. Nina is a slut. Therefore Nina, improperly directed by Babbit as just another Lolita, makes sultry, teasing come-ons to her father, free of the awkwardness and hesitancy (not to mention acne) of actual teenagers. “The Quiet,” with its cold-blue light effects, reminiscent of Skinemax movies of the early Nineties (who remembers “Poison Ivy“?), and its increasingly hilarious non sequiturs (“I killed my goldfish when I was little…I cut them in half with scissors!”), could be the comedy of the year.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]

Camilla Belle in a scene from Jamie Babbit’s “The Quiet.” Photo by Ari Briskman, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Take 3
By Chris Wisniewski

Jamie Babbit’s first film, “But I’m a Cheerleader,” was something of an indie hit, and deservedly so–a clever, campy romp through queer adolescence, “Cheerleader” had a winning, bubbly spirit that helped its half-baked satire go down easily; only the meanest curmudgeon could object. Babbit’s follow-up “The Quiet,” which limps its way into theaters this week after screening at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, has probably as many laugh-out-loud moments as its predecessor, though it’s unfortunately not a comedy (unless it is, in which case, well, don’t even get me started). With “The Quiet,” Babbit returns to adolescent girl-angst territory with deadly (and deadening) seriousness: deaf, mute Dot (Camilla Bell) longs in voiceover to be “invisible”; her adopted sister, Nina (Elisha Cuthbert), has a quite literal love-hate relationship with her abusive father (Martin Donovan); and the normally sublime Edie Falco, as Nina’s drug-addicted mother, gives the most unintentionally hilarious performance as a damaged housewife by an Emmy winner this side of Allison Janney in “American Beauty.”

In its own banal, pedestrian way, “The Quiet” aims to expose the dark, awful truths that lie hidden behind the white picket fences of Suburbia, U.S.A., though these paper-thin thematics basically serve as an excuse for Babbit to parade a scantily clad Cuthbert in front of the camera. If a man had directed it, I’m sure we’d all cry afoul; as it stands, even the promise of a half-interesting queer subtext never really pays off as it should. Like Hunter Richards‘s similarly awful “London,” “The Quiet” is the sort of pretentious indie posturing that (poorly) attempts to disguise lousy writing with misguidedly busy, self-important filmmaking. If the former was an over-kinetic, coked-out, hetero-misogynist fantasy, the latter is the preciously aestheticized adolescent-girl equivalent. Though “The Quiet” is about sexual and emotional abuse, unforgivably, it ends up being the silliest movie of the year.

[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, and is a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly.]

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