Amid baked goods and cheerful introductions, a group of white women hold a meeting inside a small-town church. But before the first slice of pie has been eaten, the seemingly innocuous gathering sheds the veneer of innocence to reveal its atrocious intent.
One of the most audacious American debuts of the year, writer-director Beth de Araújo’s “Soft & Quiet” shocks one’s system from its opening moments and doesn’t ever slow down to let you fully process it as it happens. A whirlwind of increasingly horrifying hate speech that turns into actual violence, the film plays out in real time and was shot to give the impression of being a single take, making for a deliberately intense and disturbing experience.
The newly founded club is led by Emily (Stefanie Estes), a kindergarten teacher poisoning young minds, and exists to peddle white-supremacist ideologies. As they collectively complain about people of color at their jobs or the “falsehoods” being taught to their children at schools, they plan to create a publication to spew their racist views on the dangers of multiculturalism and even perform the Nazi salute while laughing mischievously.
The blandly suburban demeanors among them — a mix of tired soccer moms and twentysomethings searching for a romantic partner — don’t evoke the vision of hatred and bigotry one has come to expect from the far right and other fringe groups in this country. And that’s exactly what makes their “soft and quiet” approach to recruiting and organizing for their abhorrent community all the more insidious. They infiltrate society from within.
Blunt as the themes of the film are, De Araújo’s writing maintains a character-driven focus that allows for these women to not come off as caricatures of evil but something far scarier: everyday individuals with venomous beliefs. In between their worst statements (while in the initial gathering) and the uglier turn that occurs as they transition to another location, there are moments of recognizable camaraderie and a search for belonging.
Leslie (Olivia Luccardi), new in town, is eager to sell her vintage clothes to support their “cause,” while Emily and others have offered to connect Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta) with bachelors suited for a long-time relationship. But even those members, who initially may seem like casual attendees without much conviction, will become complicit.
These anchors her effectively unnerving performance as Emily on a false sense of composure that’s seemingly always about to burst into rage. Hidden just behind a reassuring smile for her accomplices is a desperate need for control — at all costs. That self-righteous notion of superiority fuels her initial confrontation with two Asian sisters trying to buy wine at a store belonging to Kim (Dana Millican), a mother in the group. When their victims escape, the deranged sisterhood decides they will visit the sibling’s home to further taunt them.
Early in the nefarious plan, Emily’s husband Craig (Jon Beavers) tries to intervene, first to stop them from doing anything and then to mitigate the results of their actions. But he succumbs to the pressure of Emily’s expectations of her. She demands masculinity in the toxic form that satisfies the conservative mindset in exchange for her respect for her. Although de Araújo doesn’t absolve him of guilt — he drives there with them — she zeroes in on white women’s responsibility in perpetuating the patriarchal conventions that are harmful to all genders.
As the events return into tragedy at the sisters’ home, the power dynamic shifts, and Leslie emerges as the one willing to execute their repugnant mission to its final consequences. From this point forward, it seems Emily realizes her rhetoric has tangible effects. Not that she shows remorse, but there’s perhaps a tacit acknowledgment that she knows deep down what they are doing is wrong. Or maybe the fear of getting caught will feed into their narrative of a system set against them. Estes’ distressed expression illustrates the conflicting thoughts.
That we know nothing about the two girls who become the target for the white women’s vitriol feels appropriate, as it doesn’t matter who they are; nothing justifies what they undergo at the hands of their victimizers. In turn, the concept of “Soft & Quiet,” in that it unfurls like a single take, exemplifies how quickly dangerous ideas can yield bloodshed. Within 90 minutes, their monstrous worldview turns them into murderous home invaders, and though the timeframe is arguably an exaggeration, it gets the point across succinctly.
Both cinematographer Greta Zozula’s ability to not call attention to the “one-take” gimmick (so as to distract from the content of the fluid scenes) and de Araújo’s imposing directing talent, which succeeds at creating the illusion of naturalness in the actors’ movements and emotions while likely being highly choreographed for the camera, are responsible for the powerful immediacy and intimacy of the storytelling. If only de Araújo had pulled back on some of the supporting performances that, at times, briefly veer into theatricality, this first feature would be even stronger.
In showing how unremarkably human the perpetrators are, De Araújo confirms that some of the most despicable monsters on earth don’t wear masks or hide behind the darkness of the night; they walk among us with a prim and proper façade while festering inside. If the thought of “Soft & Quiet” is too off-putting, it might help knowing that the filmmaker doesn’t wrap up the order without a slim glimmer of hope for the possibility of retribution.
“Soft & Quiet” opens in US theaters Nov. 4 via Momentum Pictures.