In many films, marriage occurs at the end of the story. The Hollywood formula varies little: a slob stumbles into a relationship with a beautiful woman (Knocked Up), or a lonely woman pines for an unattainable hunk (Twilight series). After several mishaps and misunderstandings, marriage is the happy resolution for the unlikely pair, and the credits roll. Few films venture into the realm of matrimony, where things tend to get complicated.
A Quiet Little Marriage focuses on the newlyweds Olive (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and Dax (Cy Carter). Olive runs a fledging boutique while Dax teaches elementary school. Olive is passionate and willful; Dax is soft-spoken and careful. We can see why they’re in love—each has personality traits that the other lacks, and as a couple, Olive and Dax complement each other. Both characters are likable and the film is well cast – Ellis and Carter have effortless onscreen chemistry.
Writer/director Mo Perkins introduces the source of marital conflict early. After a night of passion, the couple talks in the soft morning light:
Olive: You know what I’d like?
Dax: I don’t think I can at this second.
Olive: (Laughs) Not that…I want to have your baby.
Dax: We both agreed that bringing a child into the world was selfish and narcissistic. In Darfur, kids are forced to eat their parents.
Olive: We don’t live in Darfur.
Both characters are motivated by their family histories. Dax is a product of a dysfunctional family. His brother Jackson is an addict who constantly comes around to borrow money. Jackson cruelly reminds Dax that “our mother was a whore.”
Olive’s only surviving family member is her father, Bruce (Michael O’Neill), who is stricken with Alzheimer’s. Bruce often thinks Olive is his dead wife. Perkins is smart enough to provide context to justify why Dax and Olive behave as they do. Dax thinks of his family as a chaotic nightmare; Olive misses her family desperately.
Olive stops taking birth control pills without telling Dax; for good measure, she pokes holes in her diaphragm with a safety pin. Deception in marriage is common in such films and is typically discovered. A small neglected detail often reveals the truth. Dax finds a pregnancy test kit in the garbage. This arouses his suspicion, but he says nothing. A few days later, Dax notices a safety pin on top of Olive’s diaphragm kit. He runs water through the diaphragm, and it leaks like a sieve.
Instead of confronting his wife, Dax represses his anger and begins his own deception: he refills Olive’s birth control prescription and doses her on the sly. This mutual deception has a slow, corrosive effect on their marriage.
In an interview about A Quiet Little Marriage, Perkins describes how her main characters “can’t communicate about starting a family, so they wind up sabotaging each other secretly.” When Olive discovers that Dax has been spiking her morning coffee with birth control pills, she leaves him. The marriage seems ruined, but when Olive’s father dies suddenly, she returns home to the only family she has left—Dax.
In a brilliantly staged reconciliation, Dax embraces Olive and tells her they should start a family. Olive refuses, and this role reversal rings true. Grief has matured Olive—she needs to bury her father and then repair her wobbly marriage.
A Quiet Little Marriage should end here, but Perkins inexplicably closes with a deus ex machina to provide a happy ending. However, the film’s resolution undercuts the serious trials this couple has been through. The creative process is about an artist making choices, and Perkins’ seemingly unerring instinct fails her in the end. Nevertheless, the film’s strength – its honest depiction of marriage and its discontents – is important.
The supporting performances include Jimmi Simpon’s effectively creepy turn as Jackson—we get the feeling early on that Jackson is an unstable element in Dax’s otherwise quiet life. O’Neill’s Bruce is quite convincing as he slips in and out of dementia. One benefit of a repeat watch: A Quiet Little Marriage opens with grainy video of Dax and Olive’s wedding – Jackson appears sober, Bruce appears healthy, and both men seem happy. It’s a masterstroke by Perkins, and one wishes she had placed this scene at the film’s end, as it’s a powerful reminder of how quickly life can change.
The cinematography by Eric Zimmerman is understated and tasteful, and Dave Lux’s enchanting score sets the overall mood. A Quiet Little Marriage recently won Grand Jury prizes at the Austin and Slamdance film festivals.