It has been remarked that many of today’s indie or specialty-division movies have ditched their experimental, artsy trappings to become the kind of lower-profile films that mainstream studios used to claim outright: intelligent thrillers, human comedies, tasteful dramas, and other assorted movies that might appeal to adults. But sometimes wires get crossed, intentions get muddled, and you end up with something like The Quiet, now on DVD.
In it, Camilla Belle plays Dot, an orphaned deaf-mute girl taken in by a dysfunctional family that includes a seriously screwed-up teenage daughter, Nina (Elisha Cuthbert). Nina is a bitchy cheerleader on the outside, while the reclusive, silent Dot is all inside; eventually they develop a relationship based on discovering each other’s dark secrets, the kind that lurk at the heart of every non-comedic movie suburbs. As soon as the film tries to mix intrigue with suburban angst — more or less from the opening scene — it can’t decide whether it’s a transgressive indie or a low-key B-picture.
The ensuing cross-breed should result in something quite familiar to the big studios: a trashy thriller. But although The Quiet is trashy in the sense that it features two hot teenage girls engaging in rivalry (with each other), incest (with others), and homoerotic flirting (with each other again), it’s less so in the sense of being, you know, fun to watch.
If it sounds insensitive to complain that an incest-ridden thriller isn’t proper fun, you probably haven’t tried to sit through this movie. Initially, it’s intriguing enough; director Jamie Babbit sustains an icy, subdued tone true to the film’s title. But the sometime restraint eventually makes the movie’s plot turns and relationships appear more ridiculous than if the filmmakers embraced decadence, camp, black comedy, or all of the above.
Some of The Quiet does work with that sort of dark-humored malice, like pretty much every line uttered by Michelle (Katy Mixon), Nina’s best friend, ceaseless in vulgar bitchery. Unfortunately, the character is but a brief sideshow, as the film chooses to navigate the murky waters of the Dot-Nina bond. A decision about whether The Quiet intends to tell us anything about life in the suburbs is put off until the slow build no longer feels like suspense, but rather procrastination.
The DVD’s extra features try to commit to the movie’s human, psychological side. In “Script Development”, Babbit and screenwriters Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft sound earnest and a little sad when they explain that the film is all about its ill-defined female characters freeing themselves of their fathers. I guess this means Cuthbert’s Nina is supposed to be conflicted and finally gaining resolve, but both the film and reality suggest that she’s probably just, you know, deeply disturbed and traumatized.
The talk of cinematography in “Sans Celluloid: The Quiet and Digital Cinema” is more convincing because they’re actually talking about something you can see onscreen. In the featurette, the filmmakers note that they use digital cameras not to affect a low-budget, home-movie feel, but to emulate the richness and careful compositions of “real” film. Though the movie looks decent and digital cameras may have saved the production some money, no one acknowledges that, for now, most digitally shot movies aiming that high still wind up looking a lot like regular film, only not quite as good.
Stranger is “Fetal Pig, Fetal Pig, Let Me In: Dissecting the Dissection Scene”, a featurette in which a brief and relatively forgettable science-class scene is treated as one of the movie’s centerpieces. In the version of The Quiet that knows how to ditch its suburbs-movie clichés and work its trashiness, maybe it would’ve been.