We have all seen it in those videos that regularly surface showing a racist attack, say in a subway or on a public bus. An individual or gang singles out a person of colour to subject to a bombardment of racial slurs or worse in front of a captive audience. Maybe a third party intervenes, maybe not. Yet what is striking is the response of all the other travellers, who turn their eyes down to the floor or off into the middle distance, whether in embarrassment, shame or fear. In short they look away. Yet writer/director Beth de Araújo’s first feature Soft & Quiet is – much like Mike Figgis’ Timecode (2000), Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2014), Erik Poppe’s Utøya: July 22 (2018) and Pablo Olmos Arrayales’ Rendez-vous (2019) – shot in a single take that lasts its entire duration, and this unbroken sequence ensures that, no matter how much you may wish to look away, the film itself will not do that for you (even if its very worst outrages are kept just out of frame). On the contrary, its prolonged, unflinching shot (via compellingly fluid camerawork from agile DP Greta Zozula) denies viewers the easy respite of cutaways or subplots. It is a real-time descent into everyday human depravity, insisting that you stick with it, from beginning to bitter end.
It opens intimately, and in medias res, with Emily (Stefanie Estes) peeing onto a pregnancy test in the toilet of the elementary school where she teaches, and weeping at the results. Emily wants nothing more than to be a mother, like her friends Kim (Dana Millican) and Jessica (Shannon Mahoney), but for now she must settle for educating the young children of other mothers. When little Brian (Jayden Leavit) is picked up late, she sits outside with him, reading to him from a draft of the children’s story that she has written, showing him the pie that she has made for a meeting that she will later attend, and insisting, as a character-building exercise, that Brian personally confront a Hispanic janitor for starting to mop the floor before he had vacated the premises. “You’re gonna make a great mum,” Brian’s mother (Nina E. Jordan) tells Emily, even if she is a little confused by what possible danger the janitor’s mopping could pose to her son. What she does not realise is that Emily is a white supremacist, that her pie is decorated with a swastika, and that the church meeting to which she is headed, and indeed which she has herself set up, is the inaugural session of the ‘Daughters for Aryan Unity’. This is a collection of six disgruntled, resentful women – friends Emily, Kim, Jessica and Alice (Rebekah Wiggins), and newcomers Leslie (Olivia Luccardi) and Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta) – who are all seeking a safe space in which they can say aloud what must otherwise be whispered in soft and quiet tones, and who are testing the waters for just how freely they can vent their frustrations and anger at the perceived Other. Racists one and all, they even hesitantly make white power signs and Nazi salutes together, giggly at their shared transgression, and delighted to have found a small, like-minded community.
“The media loves to portray us as, like, these big scary monsters,” comments Jessica, “but am I really that scary?” Part of the insidious effect of Araújo’s film is that, by embedding us with these women as they share cake and wine, chat and laugh together, and offer each other solidarity and mutual support, it is almost possible to overlook their toxic views. Yet Emily is all too aware that it is precisely their status as women that allows them to hide in plain sight – an idea that she makes explicit in words which lend meaning to the film’s title: “Soft on the outside, so vigorous ideas can be digested more easily. Now we are the best secret weapon that no one checks at the door because we tread quietly.” Their hatred, though genuine, is latent, insidious, hushed – but not quite hushed enough to escape the notice of the horrified church priest. As they are kicked out, and some of them head to the supermarket – where Kim and Leslie work – to pick up more wine before moving on to Emily’s home, they run into, and instantly start harassing, two young women of colour, and all their covert, clubby theory shifts to messy real-world praxis. The situation, already very ugly, is only amplified by the shameful past connection that Emily has with sisters Lily (Cissy Ly) and Anne (Melissa Paulo) – and as shop face-off leads to home invasion, the teacher and her reduced gang find themselves pursuing their repellent agenda to its harrowingly logical conclusion.
“It’s a practical joke,” Emily will insist to her husband Craig (Jon Beavers) who is reluctantly dragged along to break into Lily’s house. “It’s just a practical joke, ok,” Craig will later tell Lily, repeating his wife’s empty assurance, “it’s just a joke.” As well as echoing a typical defence offered by those caught online in racist gibes, these words also evoke Jud Cremata’s Let’s Scare Julie (2020), another film shot in long single takes where a group of women sneak into someone else’s house as part of a cruel prank. Except where Cremata’s film brings its characters into collision with a malevolence that is paranormal in nature, Araújo’s horror is entirely human and uncomfortably familiar. It is perhaps more like James Cullen Bressack’s home invasion found footage Hate Crime (2013), yet where that film’s thuggish Neo-Nazi tweakers were monstrous caricatures of racism and anti-Semitism, Soft & Quiet presents the softer, quieter face of fascism – the housewives and mothers, the working poor and middle-class educators, who just happen to be America’s resident evil in waiting, and whose poisonous ideology can only lead to a bad end.
“This is just like high school,” comments Kim at one point. The simile is telling, for Soft & Quiet shows us the fragile camaraderie of these women, united only in hate, while placing us in the company of the playground bullies, bigots and mean girls, still playing their malicious games in an adult world with real, deadly consequences. It is a very difficult watch, making the viewer uneasily complicit in an escalating everyday atrocity. For here we are all like those bystanders on the subway or bus as a racist incident spins out of control, unable to look away and unsure of our own part in what is unfolding. It is a suffocating encapsulation of a polarised America that keeps tragically making an enemy – and victim – of itself, and only at the very end is it possible to gasp for breath and to sort through what is left in the film’s rippling wake. It is an intense, unsettling, astonishing debut, excruciating to witness as it hits hard in real time, before lingering to haunt the mind with its broader ramifications.
strap: Writer/director Beth de Araújo’s feature debut is an incendiary single take on racism’s shift from clubby theory to ugly praxis
© Anton Bitel