"The Quiet" is a teenage soap opera, an "Afterschool Special," and a seriously twisted, R-rated psychological drama that probably wouldn't exist without the inspiration of 1999's "American Beauty
." The film breaks no new ground, unless you consider somewhat graphic displays of father-daughter incest untapped territory, but its derivative side is offset by characters that are complex, multilayered, flawed, and sympathetic when they aren't tragically pathetic. Thus, even when director Jamie Babbit (2000's "But I'm a Cheerleader") and first-time screenwriters Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft overstep their boundaries and choose pat solutions over approaching the bigger conflicts, the people involved in the sordid plot are painted with shades beyond black and white.
Dysfunction runs in the Deer family, and that's long before deaf and mute 16-year-old Dot (Camilla Belle) enters the picture. The daughter of a family friend who has recently died, Dot is adopted by the Deer clan and, at least in the case of cheerleading teenage stepsister Nina (Elisha Cuthbert), not exactly welcomed with open arms. The family, which is rounded out by pill-popping mother Olivia (Edie Falco) and lecherous father Paul (Martin Donovan), go about their daily lives, unintentionally taking advantage of Dot through her seeming communication barriers. Meanwhile, all Dot can do is silently observe the problems she sees in front of herOlivia's out-of-control addiction and Paul and Nina's sick incestuous relationshipall the while yearning to fade into the background as if she never existed. When Nina confesses that she is planning to murder her dad, however, Dot must finally come into her own before she herself can make a life-altering decision.
Through the course of the film, the Deers' house interior is being remodeled, its plastic coverings over the furniture and architecture a subtly symbolic comment on the many secrets being hidden within the very same walls. It's a small detail in the grand scheme of things, but primarily comic director Jamie Babbit, tackling a serious subject with a relatively straight tone, makes sure that it does not go unnoticed. For a motion picture that is so much about the facades we as people put up to mask what is really going on underneath the surface, the beauty of "The Quiet" is in the astute writing of the complicated characters. No one is exactly as they seem, and yet there aren't any revelations that feel tacked on. Instead, the people grow naturally through human behavior, and many of them, initial antagonists included, eventually earn our respect against all odds.
It's the little moments that count rather than the whole, which wades toward self-important pretentiousness by the last act. Consider Nina, a fascinating individual whose popularity at school doesn't neutralize her snotty hostility towards Dot and her parents, nor her painful personal insecurities. When she confronts Dot in the high school bathroom and insists on putting some lipstick on hera kind enough gesturethe viewer recoils when it is found out that she has made up her lips to look like a clown's. It would be easy to write Nina off as irredeemable, but that isn't even close to being the case. She is torn between her equal parts love and hate for her father, whom she has been carrying on a sexual relationship with, and eventually confides in Dot about killing hima thought that may be genuine or merely a fantasy. And then there is the compassion exposed in her personality; when Nina and her friends go to see a movie, Dot sits in the back of the theater and spots Nina holding her fingers over her ears and trying to understand what it might be like for her.
The ensemble cast is one of the strongest suits in "The Quiet." The supporting performances are sterling. Edie Falco (2006's "Freedomland
") is almost too believable as a mother who self-medicates as a way of not having to deal with the knowledge that her marriage is a sham and her husband would rather sleep with his own daughter than with her. Martin Donovan (2004's "Saved!
") is creepy as the aforementioned incestuous father, but not an out-and-out monster; he knows what he is doing is wrong, but doesn't know how to stop it. And Shawn Ashmore (2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand
") is winning as Connor, the school jock with a sensitive side who bonds with Dot because she is the one person who can't hear him when he divulges his deepest secrets aloud.
Falco, Donovan and Ashmore are all very good, but the film belongs to the two stars: Camilla Belle (2006's "When a Stranger Calls
") and Elisha Cuthbert (2004's "The Girl Next Door
"). As the elusive Dot, Belle has the most difficult task. Unable or unwilling to speak and maybe or maybe not deaf, Belle narrates on occasion, but otherwise must act totally with her eyes and facial expressions. Each look she gives to the events that twirl around her can be interpreted any number of ways, and yet there's never any question about what she is going through and how she is feeling in her soul. As Nina, Cuthbert is revelatory once more, following standout performances in "The Girl Next Door
" and TV's "24." Cuthbert expands and grows as an actress with every role she inhabits, and no two of her characters are remotely alike. She digs into the nastiness Nina is capable of, but also the heartbreaking pathos of a young woman confused and revolted by the choices she has made in her short life.
The dark underbelly of suburbia is a topic often explored in American cinema, and "The Quiet" is only the latest entry in the genre. The last fifteen minutes, featuring a few plot holes and open-ended threads hanging in the balance, are disappointing, suggesting that a single act of violence is the answer to everyone's problems. What director Jamie Babbit doesn't recognize, or neglects to explore, is that this is not the answer at all, but simply a gateway for even bigger issues. Save for the climactic missteps and a general sense of deja vu over some of the proceedings, "The Quiet" is an uncomfortable and disturbing portrait of lives in disarray, each one being hidden by a veneer of faux-normalcy within the external world. To paraphrase a song by The Rolling Stones, not every character gets what they want, but most of them do ultimately get what they need.