Soft & Quiet : ‘SXSW’ Review – A Deeply Disturbing Horror Film On Violent Acts Of Racism
The human species has reached the year 2022 and racism still exists. There’s a great economic burden on almost every country in the world. The pandemic is still up and running. On top of that, there’s that little thing called the climate crisis looming over us all. Yet, we as a society find the time to be racist. Now, bigots are consistently confronted in multiple ways. Non-fiction writers write stories to teach us about the history of racism. Fiction writers say the same but via subtext. Documentary filmmakers present extensive proof of humanity’s racist past. Narrative feature filmmakers do the same, but with the help of subtext. However, when the present is so heinous and splattered all over the news, what’s the point of contextualizing it with anything? Just let it play out in real-time and the commentary will become evident. And that’s exactly what Soft & Quiet  does.
Written and directed by Beth de Araújo, Soft & Quiet starts with the protagonist of the story, Emily (Stefanie Estes) having a panic attack at the school she teaches in after finding out that she’s not pregnant. She proceeds to randomly tell a kid, whose mother hasn’t arrived yet, to go and tell the school’s janitor to do her work after he has left the building and not while he’s there. She makes it look like she’s teaching the kid to be “assertive”. Whereas she’s actually teaching a kid to be assertive on people who don’t look like them. The narrative slowly shifts to a get-together at a church organized by Emily that’s being attended by a group of all-White women. And believe it or not, one thing leads to another, and that Nazi-propaganda tea party turns into a straight-up hate crime on a POC family.
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From a storytelling point-of-view, Soft & Quiet’s uncut-esque take is its biggest asset. Yes, there are hidden cuts here and there. But Araújo, cinematographer Greta Zozula, editor Lindsay Armstrong, and the actors do a tremendous job of making them as invisible as possible. In fact, there are moments that look like the perfect place to hide a cut between two separate scenes. But it’s probably an effort to keep us looking elsewhere while everything beyond the camera’s peripheral vision, especially the actors, is set up according to the need of the scene. The uncut nature does reach some highs during the tea party scene as the women keep going on and on about the racist things they want to do. Then it ramps up again during the entirety of the assault on the family. The rest is undeniably commendable. However, apart from showing the departure of daylight mirroring the darkness of the characters’ actions, the uncut-esque take doesn’t really do anything to accentuate the topic at hand.
There’s no doubt that we live in a time where subtext doesn’t matter. Everything needs to be apparent in the text or else our brains that have been severely desensitized by reality will certainly miss it. But that comes with a caveat. Which is, if you are not saying anything constructive, why are you saying anything at all? Or if your art is not providing any form of emotional catharsis, what’s the point of fictionalizing reality? Yes, White people are monsters and hate crimes against POC are on the rise. We see that on the news every day. What’s your movie doing besides reiterating that very sad and obvious fact? And that’s the dichotomy of Soft & Quiet’s writing. Araújo shows how White women internalize misogyny and rationalize racism. She shows how White people dehumanize anyone whose melanin count is higher than theirs. And that’s it. There is no closure. There’s no catharsis. Whether that’s good or bad storytelling, it’s up to you to decide.
Since there aren’t many examples of modern-day Nazi propagandists committing a hate crime, allow me to use two separate movies to illustrate the aforementioned point. Inglourious Basterds (2009) show Nazis being Nazis. It ends with Hitler being killed violently (something which didn’t happen in real life). Revenge (2017) depicts a horrific rape and attempt to murder. It ends with the victim killing her rapists incredibly violently. None of those climaxes are realistic. The realities they talk about are. But both of them use the medium of cinema to give the characters some closure and the audience some catharsis, two things people probably won’t get in real life. Soft & Quiet gets a little engrossed in its attempt at being realistic and forgets to be cinematic. That undoubtedly allows Olivia Luccardi, Jon Beavers, Stefanie Estes, Melissa Paulo, Rebekah Wiggins, Cissy Ly, Dana Millican, and Eleanore Pienta to deliver some jaw-dropping performances which after a point do not seem like performances at all. It starts to feel like we’re watching people turn into monsters in real-time and we can’t look away.
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Soft & Quiet is an important film because it distills the rampant racism in North America and all around the world and depicts it in the rawest way possible. It deserves a viewing because it’s being told through the perspective of Beth de Araújo, the daughter of a Chinese-American mother and Brazilian father. In addition to all that, the movie boasts of some exquisite camerawork, editing, and performances from its cast which needs to be seen to believe. Who knows? Maybe all or one of these elements will awaken willfully ignorant people who are going about their day casually justifying their racism and help them realize that they are some of the worst creatures on this planet. There’s a fat chance that if they’re racist in 2022, nothing will fix them. But if we stop being optimistic, then we’ll be giving the antagonists a free pass. And we can’t let that happen.