Like many teenagers, the aptly named Dot (Camilla Belle) wants to be “invisible.” Alas, she’s not quite invisible, only deaf and mute. Following the death of her deaf father (hit by a truck as she watched), she’s also orphaned. Understandably feeling afraid and abandoned, Dot now faces more trauma, in the form of a new home headed by her godfather, Paul Deer (Martin Donovan).
As The Quiet begins, it is clear that Paul’s decision to absorb Dot into his home is his alone. As we enter the household with Dot, we share her perspective, part appalled, part intrigued, noting that the suburban Connecticut house is literally undone: sheets of plastic, and half-finished, starkly empty spaces indicate the redesign undertaken by Olivia Deer (Edie Falco), a professional designer. Trying to watch the evening news in her bright white kitchen, Olivia doesn’t have much to say in response to her daughter’s Nina (Elisha Cuthbert) complaints: “Why can’t we watch something that actually affects us?” Nina whines. She and her best friend/fellow cheerleader Michelle (Katy Mixon) prefer music videos.
When Olivia ignores them, the girls turn on an easier target, Dot, sitting silently at the dinner table. She’s a “nut,” they agree, as well as a “retarded girl” and a “freak.” Paul makes feeble efforts to shush his daughter, then turns to Dot and carefully articulates every word so she can read his lips. As your point of identification, Dot reads much more than what Paul, Nina or even Olivia might mean to say. The trouble is, what she reads is predictable and unsubtle.
As in director Jamie Babbit’s last movie, But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), the focus here is the secrets that lurk beneath glossy suburban surfaces, the sort of surfaces so frequently embodied by cheerleaders. Nina plays the part of melodramatic caricature, wearing her uniform a lot in The Quiet. When she’s not wearing it, she’s ironing or cleaning it, most often under the watchful eye of her father. The first kitchen scene makes clear the extreme but also tedious yuckiness of their relationship: dad leans into is daughter’s perfect neck and tells her she’s beautiful; Nina frets, “I look like shit, I need to wash my hair.” You shudder, the camera cuts to Dot, and the plot’s course is pretty much set.
This course involves the furious mom, of course. Not only is Olivia trying to remake her house (her version of having to wash her hair: “I have to wait for the Italians to send me fabrics”), she’s also popping pills. “My hip still hurts at night,” she says, by way of explaining that she is, indeed, in perpetual pain. When she passes out leaned against the wall of her incomplete living room, Paul carries her to the bedroom, where she complains that he’s brought Dot into the house: “I’m incredibly fucking self-aware,” she announces, challenging his assumption that he’s getting away with something because she’s self-medicating.
But of course he is getting away with something, and it’s poor Dot’s plot to make him pay for his crimes. The seeming complication is that she has her own secret, though again, it’s not much of one (that is, it’s obvious within a few scenes). She keeps it from her new family and she keeps it from her new classmates, who tend to treat her with the same kind of cruelty as do the cheerleaders.
While the popular girls sit together in the cafeteria and decide which boys they want to bed this semester, Dot is cast off to the social margins, signing with a cafeteria worker, watching her so-called peers from long-lensed distances. When she catches the eye of basketball star Connor (Shawn Ashmore), it’s only a matter of time before Dot runs smack into the cheerleaders’ collective wrath (and learns that sex isn’t quite the entry into adulthood that she imagines, again, not exactly a surprise).
The competitive tension between Dot and Nina becomes more complicated when each learns the other’s secret. As both girls pursue the approval of their fathers (dead or alive), they also seek independent identities. That’s not to say their efforts to be “self-aware” are necessarily profound. “One day we wake up,” says Dot in voiceover, “And we realize the world sucks and we suck for being in it.”
The Quiet makes the conventional observation that this “world” is instituted by adults, and also mirrored and prepared for in high school. Even when Nina and Dot come to a mutual understanding, they’re already immersed in the dire burbs. “I feel like I can be honest with you,” Nina tells Dot, “because you can’ hear… It’s so nice to know that there’s someone whose life sucks worse than mine.” It almost seems an accident, that Nina voices the movie’s most compelling insight: in this “world” of surfaces and spite, intimacy depends on lack of understanding… or more accurately, lack of communication and the possibilty for change. Enduring movie-of-the-weekish melodrama and horror movie-style abuses, the girls are eventually caught up in a solution that only perpetuates the nastiness. By the time they come to terms, they look as exhausted as you feel.