“How can something so delicious be so bad for you?” Emily (Stefanie Estes) says, relishing the butter she finished a pie with to bring to a meeting of the minds in “Soft and Quiet,” taking place in a shrouded forest locale. She doesn’t entirely know the women she’s serving, surely friendly with Kim (Dana Millican), the owner of a local market where she surely bought the pie’s fruit filling, but only just getting to know Kim’s friend Leslie (Olivia Luccardi), who has a criminal record and Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta), who barely knows anyone there, but was recently passed over for a job promotion and was told this might be a safe space to air her grievances. Nothing is seemingly wrong on the surface of such a gathering, but as a buttery crust is suggested to cover up a whole host of sin, the women are there for far more nefarious purposes than a book club.
In the company of the like-minded and light-skinned, conversations lamenting the current state of the world in “Soft and Quiet” become blunt and ugly as resentment of the increasingly multicultural neighborhood around them rises to the surface. With cinematographer Greta Zozula said to have trained three months for what would be ultimately a four-day shoot comprised of long unbroken takes, there’s no respite from the nastiness that unfolds and once an encounter with a pair of Asian sisters (Melissa Paulo and Cissy Ly) at Kim’s market goes awry, the women’s bad decisions about how to proceed that only make the situation worse with each potential fix roll on like an avalanche. Not only does the fluidity of the shoot require a certain fearlessness on the part of the cast, writer/director Beth de Araujo’s barbed wire-bound script might make some worry that they’ll ever be able to work again, but future employment is only a concern now for how much they’ll want to work when their strong performances are part of what makes the provocation likely to become a sensation.
de Araujo shows off muscular filmmaking chops in service of an incendiary story, hardly subtle about its aims but refined in execution when “Soft and Quiet” illustrates the power of hatred on a micro level after stripping away the veneer of public civility. The film opens up questions at every opportunity that add to the suspense as it puts one in the mindset of its characters, starting with a brilliant introduction to Emily, an elementary school teacher who casually tells the parent of one of her students that their child was put in danger by a janitor who just mopped the floors inside. It would seem benign if, besides offering no actual evidence of this, Emily wasn’t shown to have greater things to worry about, manically racing around just before after learning some deeply disturbing personal news and seeing the power of her position to chastise the Hispanic help as the only way to redistribute her anger, never mind the fact that the kid looks fine and the parent is likely doing more harm by being late to pick them up from class.
Of the many chilling elements “Soft and Quiet” comes to have, the later revelation that Emily is actually molding young minds from their earliest age in kindergarten is one of the most upsetting and even among the women roughly around her own age, you can see the radicalizing effect she has on others who don’t have her certitude, with the least inveterately racist of the group in the twentysomethings Leslie and Marjorie intoxicated by her confidence and a sense of belonging in her company. The horror movie that exists just outside the frame always looms larger than the one that’s unfolding on screen, which is saying something when de Araujo and company deliver such a viscerally brutal experience, and it’s indicative of how impressively “Soft and Quiet” uncovers and distills the ways in which systemic racism really works. Still, while this may sound deflating on the surface, there may be nothing more energizing than to see de Araujo use the same furious feelings her characters use for fuel to engage and confront rather than divide and in making something so spectacularly entertaining, cannot be ignored.
“Soft and Quiet” will screen again at SXSW on March 13th at 6:45 pm at the Violet Crown Cinema 2 and 7:15 pm at the Violet Crown Cinema 4 and March 17th at 12:15 pm at Alamo Lamar D. It will also screen virtually for SXSW Online badgeholders from March 13th-15th.