The Quiet

(Jamie Babbit, USA, 2005)


There is a touch of Poison Ivy (1992) in The Quiet – thus of Pier Paolo Pasolini (Teorema, 1968) and André Téchiné. The cinema of the perverse – via a mystery-thriller genre framework, especially the intimacy thriller, frequently a kissing cousin to the art-film. A newly reshuffled family – teenage deaf-mute Dot (Camilla Belle) must move into the home of her godparents, where another teen (Elisha Cuthbert as Nina) previously reigned – provides the melodramatic plot premise.


One exciting twist here: the moment that Nina discovers that Dot is not really a deaf-mute at all, only faking it. (Playing superb classical piano in the music room off the main school corridor, as Dot seemingly does every third scene, will trip you up that way.) But then, knowing that, but without saying so, Nina starts pouring saucy confessions into Dot’s ear – who (not realising she’s been found out) keeps up the pose of quiet.


It’s an intriguing moment, because of its dramatic ambiguity: it could be (this is the most likely hypothesis) that Nina is trying to entangle Dot in an infernal complicity – and that comes up in the plot, almost half-heartedly, later – but the perverse part is that Nina seems to be enjoying this confession into the vessel which will not openly respond.


Aside: why this curious emphasis on confession in dramatic teen films about murder and suicide in high school? – the woeful Australian movie 2:37 (2006), which crosses over with The Quiet at several points, comes to mind, with its awkward device of all the characters blurting out their souls and secrets to a documentary video camera in another school side-room. Is it the impact of Big Brother and its Reality-TV ilk, with their “confession booths” that promise illusory privacy – and perhaps even phantasmic immunity from guilt?


Immunity from guilt figures in The Quiet, too. Overall, the film – with its smooth but unspectacular amalgam of cinema-like digital shooting/treatments, Austin (Texas) location and local colour, and American Beauty [1999]-type easy suburban Gothicism – is not terribly interesting. I may be oversensitive to the developed-at-Sundance tag when it affixes itself to the end of a movie, but in this case (as in so many others!) it confirmed my worst suspicions throughout.


Like so many Sundancing films, this one arrives at a weird and neat moral calculus of narrative actions. The famous, proto-Hitchcockian displacement/transference of guilt becomes a sly, evasive trick: from Nina who (understandably) wants to cut the throat of her sexually abusive father (Martin Donovan) to Dot who actually performs the deed (the typical doppelgänger-who-actualises-your-dreams device beloved of sleazy thrillers since Strangers on a Train [1951]) to … the consistently zoned-out zombie mother (blame Mum: this is the rotten American Beauty legacy), played like a marionette by Edie Falco – she deserves to take the rap for the murder of the demon-husband she turned a blind eye to, all those nights in their daughter’s bedroom!


This leaves Dot and Nina to their new-found sisterhood – and this, Babbit rebaptises, in a final recoding, as an absolute, redeemable good thing. No matter what their crimes! – no lingering moral ambiguity here. I will venture something presumptuous here: it seems that almost every female director who ever directed an episode of The L Word (2004-2009), or worked for the progressive producer Andrea Sperling (on board here, as on Babbit’s earlier But I’m a Cheerleader [1999]), will end up making a film like The Quiet: a crypto-queer effort under the guise of some popular genre, with no specific or overly lesbian content – yet what sense can the ending here make, with its crazy moral calculus, if it is not secretly underwritten as a transgressive love story between gals, thus forgiving all extreme acts that allow freedom from the patriarch, and open-road togetherness?

© Adrian Martin January 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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