There’s a remarkable scene roughly midway through Nathan Silver’s fourth feature, “Uncertain Terms” in which Robbie, a man soon to be unencumbered from the bonds of marriage, shares a hamburger and a beer with Nina, a pregnant teen currently residing at his aunt’s home for such girls. This isn’t the first time the two have shown disregard for the unborn child, having previously shared a cigarette on the porch, but the two have grown closer to each other when Robbie imparts some wisdom to Nina that she’s unprepared by age to receive, explaining how at 30, he has cycled through a relationship he should’ve never gotten serious about in the first place and how he only noticed a distressing pattern by the time it was too late. Nina, all of 16, thinks she can relate since she’s caught in an abusive romance with the father of her child, but as much conviction as there is in her eyes, you know she can’t, even without knowing that Robbie isn’t in the right state of mind to know whether he actually believes in what he’s saying.
It’s just one of many striking moments in Silver’s most accomplished film to date, one that starts with great confidence in revealing its premise through a tracking shot of Nina walking alone down a dirt path, far from comfort as she has a tense conversation with her boyfriend, and feeling even lonelier once inside the house with five other girls sharing her predicament. However, as Nina tries her best to recede into the background, Silver floods the screen with his unique brand of chaos, which breaks out at a moment’s notice amongst the anxious young women with uncertain future and personified in Robbie, who proves to be catnip to them as the only man around the house, but a poisonous one three days removed from leaving his wife for reasons he hasn’t fully understood to stay at his aunt’s and help with handiwork. The older Jean, who is about to turn 18, is particularly aggressive in attempting to woo him, but Nina quietly piques his interest as someone he can offer something to.
As has now become tradition, Silver casts his mother in the film as the girls’ den mother, and himself as her devil-may-care son, both often providing the comic relief that becomes necessary considering how much tension he fills the house with. India Menuez is well-cast as the pale Nina, who allows you to see how others make their impression upon her, but naturally, Tallie Mendel, who plays the more forthright Jean, gives a performance as bold as the turquoise streaks in her hair, sweeping into every scene like a hurricane. David Dahlbom is placed in a trickier spot as Robbie, who isn’t given much more reason than the fact that he’s male to appeal to the girls who are living out the consequences of already falling for a guy like him, yet pulls off the part of damaged goods quite expertly.
“Uncertain Terms” freely wields the confrontational edge that has made Silver’s films such as “Exit Elena” and “Soft in the Head” so compelling to watch in recent years, yet the filmmaker is able to invite audiences in to a greater degree with a story that proves as dynamic as the characters he and the actors create. Silver may have made a habit of documenting characters with shaky futures ahead, but judging by his latest, he knows where he’s going, even if it’s thrillingly uncharted territory.